Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
As might be expected, this popular psalm is well used in Lectionary readings. All readings will share the same commentary, with different emphases in the Preaching Paths.
If anyone ever doubted the power of poetry and metaphor to express the most profound spiritual truths, they surely would be convinced in reading Psalm 23. This psalm is beloved by many because it so simply and in such common metaphors expresses such profound faith and truth.
There has been so much written on this psalm that it might seem pointless to attempt to add anything here. Yet, if we move beyond the images and the emotional level and probe the theology of the psalm we may find something of value.
This Psalm is almost universally recognized as a Psalm of Trust or confidence. It is usually considered a more specialized type of thanksgiving or todah psalm. Yet, it is one step removed from a thanksgiving psalm, because this psalm has moved further toward contemplation (see Patterns for Life).
A characteristic feature of the todah psalm is the sense of immediacy, an impression that the psalmist is very close to the experience of deliverance for which s/he is praising God. There is still some of that sense of immediacy in the middle verses of Psalm 23 where the pronouns are second person (vv. 4-5). The rest of the psalm is much more deliberately reflective as it presents metaphorical statements about God in third person forms. This suggests that while the immediate experience of God's deliverance still lies in the not too distant background, this psalm has moved toward reflection on the implications of that experience for life.
The structure of this psalm does not contain all the elements of a todah Psalm, yet it follows the basic structural flow of the psalms of thanksgiving. The shift of person marks the three distinct parts of the psalm.
This structure establishes a movement within the psalm that is as much theological as it is temporal. The psalmist first makes a present confession of trust (vv. 1-3). He then recalls in an indirect way the crisis and deliverance of the past that became the basis for that present confession (vv. 4-5). While the past dimension is not overt here, the metaphors recall both the language of lament ("deep darkness," "evil," "enemies") in which God's deliverance is sought in petition, as well as thanksgiving psalms that retell the crises in light of deliverance. This suggests that these verses are a reflection on that past deliverance, now generalized to declaration. The psalm then moves to an affirmation about the future that arises from the present confidence and past experience (v. 6).
This interweaving of past, present, and future dimensions of faith is one of the basic elements of Old Testament theological confession. It is grounded not only in Israel's historical experience, especially in the exodus traditions, but also in the dynamic of ongoing confession about God within the community. It is seen clearly in the injunctions to recount the story of the community's experience of God as theological affirmation: "When your children ask in time to come [future], 'What do these things mean?' [present] then you shall tell them, 'By His mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .[past]'" (Ex 13:14; cf. Deut. 6:7, 20-25, Josh 4:21-22).
This dimension of Psalm 23 has even more impact when we notice the sometimes subtle allusions to the Exodus story within this psalm, as Peter Craigie and others have pointed out. This occurs not only in general content, but in the use of words and imagery that is anchored in the exodus tradition. The expression "I shall lack nothing" (v. 1b) recalls God's provision for the Israelites in the exodus journey toward the land: "These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing." (Deut 2:7; note Psa 34:10). The writer of Deuteronomy uses the same term to express the security of the future of the Israelites under God's care (8:7-9): "The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land . . .where you will lack nothing"
The "pastures" or "meadows" (v. 2) that represent a place of security and plenty recall the "holy habitation [of shepherds]" in the Song of the Sea (Ex 15:13), a variation of the same word referring to the land of Canaan to which God led the Israelites after slavery in Egypt. Further, the word "lead" or "guide" that occurs in the Song of the Sea (Ex 15:13) describes God's providential leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt, thorough the desert, and into the land. It is the same term that is used in Psalm 23 to describe the activity of the Shepherd (v. 2b). A different word for "lead" or "guide" occurs in verse 3, and is also associated with the exodus tradition, even in the metaphor of God as Shepherd and linked with safety and lack of fear (Psa 78:52-53; cf. Ex 13:21):
Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. He led them in safety so that they were not afraid. . . . And he brought them to his holy hill . . . .
There are other points of contact as well. In any case, this exodus imagery in Psalm 23 serves two purposes. First, it is a metaphorical way to express the psalmist's own experience and faith in terms of the exodus tradition, which had become a paradigm of God's care and grace for humanity.
Second, it serves to move beyond the psalmist's personal experience in order to relate it to the ways of God with his people. It anchors that experience in a larger conception of God and the experience of others that shaped community faith as a response to the exodus. This dual level of imagery allows the psalm to be intensely personal, which is why it is so beloved by so many people. Yet at the same time it places that personal experience in the larger context of reflecting upon and understanding the nature of God as revealed and affirmed in the experience of the community through history.
These echoes of the exodus give substance to the metaphor of God as Shepherd. This metaphor is far more than simply convenient illustration drawn at random from everyday life. It is a theological metaphor that conceptualizes God as the one who has guided the creation of the people of Israel. It was he who has led them into this land, who has helped them deal with their enemies, and who has provided even physical sustenance for them when they could not provide for themselves.
The metaphor of shepherd was a common one for kings and leaders in the ancient world, and was early adopted into Israelite usage. Yet, against this background, it becomes a more specific confession about the God whom the Israelites had experienced in their history as the one who hears the cries of oppressed slaves and enters history to effect their deliverance. And now, as the psalmist has experienced that same Shepherd in his own life, he can reaffirm that truth about God, only in the personal confession that begins, "my shepherd." Here is where community and traditional theological assertions intersect with personal, vital faith!
The middle section of the psalm moves into personal conversation with God, in which the psalmist addresses God in relational terms, "I-Thou." As noted, there is a hint of immediacy here that suggests a past situation in which the threats were real and not just potential. There is not enough information here to learn what the threat entailed, especially due to the stereotypical nature of the language. But the reference to "deep darkness" evokes the most threatening images of death, as in Job (10:21-22) where the term is a poetic synonym for death.
There is a stark reality in this section of the psalm. There is no glib assertion that God will prevent the threat from coming. It is likely that the psalmist had already been in the valley of death, that he has already experienced the evil or tragedy of life, that he has already come face to face with the "enemies." So he knows that the Shepherd will not always prevent him from facing that danger. That is why the reality of the situation, as in the psalms of lament, must be allowed to have its full force.
And yet in the face of the threat, there is a confidence in God. Here is where the past dimension of communal faith meets the experience of the psalmist. God has acted in the life of the psalmist in ways that are consistent with how he has acted in Israel's history. Here the psalmist uses an affirmation that is buried deep in the traditions of Old Testament faith as he declares "you are with me" (v. 4c).
"I will be with you" had always been the promise of God to his people, both to individuals that faced great threat or promise (Isaac, Gen 26:3; Jacob, Gen 28:15, Moses, Exod 3; Joshua, Josh 1:5, Solomon, I Kings 11:38, Mary, Luke, 1:28), or to the community of Israel (Isa 43:2, Amos 5:14) or the church (Matt 28:20). This idea of God's presence in the expression "I will be with you" became a formulaic way of confessing both inadequacy and fear in the face of threat, as well as a conviction that God would sustain his people in times of crisis or when they faced challenges that they could not accomplish in their own resources.
This was not just a blind hope that things would somehow work out. It was a vigorous and fundamental expression of biblical faith based on God's own self-revelation in Israel's history, that God was a God who worked in the world no matter the circumstances. It was a bold affirmation that even circumstances could not be trusted to tell the true story. Because where God was, no matter what the apparent endings of the circumstances or the impossibility of the task, there was the possibility of newness and the promise of God's sufficiency and provision to accomplish the task. Even in the face of the seemingly impossible task of going into all the world and making disciples of all people, the parting words of Jesus in Matthew echoed this affirmation of God's sufficiency (Matt 28:20). It is this same sense of the empowering, sustaining, and enabling presence of God in the world that emerges in the metaphor of the "wind" (or "breath" or "spirit") of God that is active in human history.
For the psalmist to invoke the expression of God's presence, especially in the context of deathly threat to speak of comfort and lack of fear, is again to anchor his confidence not only in his own experience, but in the faithfulness of God across the centuries. He may face death, the enemies may come, tragedy (evil) may happen, but as long as God is with him, the psalmist can face whatever life brings with a security and confidence that is grounded in everything Israel had ever experienced about God.
The more problematic issues of injustices in the world do not emerge here. The reflections about the problem of evil in the world and unjust suffering do not appear. The troubling questions that would emerge in other places and on other psalms concerning those who have trusted in God and yet are not delivered are simply not a part of this psalm. Here is a confidence, a trust, that will not yield to such questions. There is simply no qualification to this trust. It is complete and pure.
There is some tension for us in the shift of metaphors in the psalm. While the psalm began with the metaphors of a shepherd caring for sheep, which continues through verse 4, in verse 5 the metaphor shifts to a that of a gracious host providing abundance for guests. Yet, the imagery is not as incongruent as it might appear. This metaphor of the "host" is deeply rooted in the customs of the Ancient Near East, where hospitality to foreigners, strangers, and travelers was a sacred duty (see Travelers and Strangers). In a hostile desert environment where travelers had little rights outside their own territory, a person was required by custom to provide food, water, and shelter to travelers. By extending food and shelter, the host was taking to himself the responsibility of protecting the traveler as long as he was in his territory.
In this sense the metaphor of the caring Shepherd and the gracious Host are actually different facets of the same imagery, a God who takes it upon himself to care for, provide for, and protect his people. The "rod" and "staff" are two implements carried by shepherds, the staff as a tool of aid and the rod as a weapon of defense. Together they emphasize the provision of God in both care and protection. The references to anointing demonstrate more clearly the fulfillment of customs of hospitality by a gracious host (note in Luke 7:44-47 where Simon's failure to do so was recognized as a deliberate rebuff and insult). God is presented as both the shepherd who guides and the host who provides.
The provision of food and abundant drink celebrates the fact that God has extended his care to the psalmist, and indeed to the entire nation of Israel. We should not too easily spiritualize this away into abstraction. Here, as in the exodus, the provisions of God were real, physical provisions to meet immediate physical needs. It is all too easy to abuse this truth by a selfish perspective that sees God as giving us everything we want. Yet, we should not overreact and assume that there is never any physical provision in God's care for his people. While there is a profoundly spiritual dimension to the psalmist's confession here, it arises as a reflection upon God meeting a real physical need.
The conclusion of the Psalm returns to a level of confession about God that is a form of praise. While the typical words for praise or thanks are not here, the reference to "house of the Lord" (the temple) clearly places this psalm in the context of worship. Verse 6b is obviously a literary example of hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. It is not that the psalmist is going to move into the temple to live the rest of his days. Yet, this expresses an attitude that will shape the rest of his life. As God has been with him, so he will spend the rest of his days in the presence of God in worshipful praise, because he has walked through death's valley with God's comfort and without fear!
The sense of threat and imminent danger that lies at the heart of this Psalm makes it an appropriate reading for this middle of the Lenten journey. The psalm itself is rather profound in its simplicity, and it is that very simplicity and lack of specificity that allows it to be so versatile. Yet, the season of Lent provides a more specific setting that guides the Preaching Paths on this Sunday.
The dual dimension of the Psalm as both a lament crying to God from the threats posed by the dark valleys of life and as a praise confessing God's faithfulness as Shepherd and Host mirrors the mixed perspectives and emotions of the Lenten journey. On the one hand there is the deep sense of penitence and grief as we are constantly called to confront the sins of our world and of our own lives, and the consequences they unleash among us. And so we can all too easily identify with the valley where the dark specter of death looms all too real. On the other hand there is the expectation of the end of the journey where the light will triumph, where vindication will come in the presence of the enemy, where the security of God's goodness and mercy will be more reality than hope or prayer.
And yet, we must be honest in the midst of the journey and not jump too quickly to victory. The valley may be all too real, as the disciples who follow Jesus would themselves learn as they journeyed toward the darkness of Good Friday. There is that honesty about life in this psalm. Even amid the most moving expressions of devotion and faith there is still the awareness that darkness and tragedy may come, or even will come. There is no false piety here that glibly assumes that following God will guarantee safe passage. But there is the calm assurance that even in the darkness, God walks beside us.
Perhaps this is the greatest message that we can bring from this Psalm and is perhaps the greatest value to be gained from our reflection during the Lenten journey. If we can first bring ourselves to the point of openness before God, to the point of humility and confession to which we are called during Lent, then we may be in a position to turn away from our own security and confidence long enough to hear this psalm from the perspective of need. If we first place ourselves in the position of facing the darkness of our own existence, we may be ready to extend a hand to the Shepherd with the faith, the assurance, the trust that "you are with me."
It is the trust of a child whose fears can be calmed simply by holding the hand of a parent. The fears may be insignificant in some larger reality. But that does not make them any less real to the one feeling them or the need any less. Yet, the "evil" of the world may be far more substantial than childish fears. The death may be physical death, or the slow death of illness. The enemies may be real enemies who have betrayed, or lied, or stolen, or violated. And yet the comfort is no different from the childlike trust that knows from past experience that the presence of God in life is the only source of security, of provision, of comfort in the darkness.
From that childlike trust in a God who is our Shepherd, who walks beside us whether we are beside still waters or in dark valleys, comes a joy and a peace, a renewal of who we are as followers of Jesus. Like Paul, who can write from his prison cell awaiting a Roman execution about the joy he has in Christ (for example, Phil 1:4, 2:2), we can find a joy that will allow us to have the trust of a child. It will not be an innocent trust. But it will be a trust just as strong, because we have chosen to walk this path, and to allow God to lead us and walk beside us.
The concluding metaphor of this Psalm adds an important aspect to these observations during this season. The shift in metaphors from Shepherd to Host, from walking a path to a banquet invokes a dimension of physical provision that we should not spiritualize away into abstraction. The psalm is about the realities of life and the providence and care of God in helping us cope with those realities.
And yet the metaphor of the banquet may be seen in deeper dimensions during this season. The security of God's presence is realized in the meal shared in the presence of God. While in the context of the Old Testament psalm it certainly does not have Eucharistic overtones as some have allegorized, it most likely does have overtones of worship. That is, "you prepare a table before me" can also be understood as an invitation to come into the presence of God in worship and in so doing to partake of his strength and receive his healing anointing.
This places the act of worship as an important means of grace, as a crucial vehicle for the trust that allows us to make the journey with all of its threats. It would not be too far from the thrust of this psalm to suggest that it is the banquet that empowers the journey. From the perspective of the journey of Lent, which is itself a metaphor for the larger journey of life, the dimension of worship takes on a central role.
Above, I noted: "If we can first bring ourselves to the point of openness before God, to the point of humility and confession to which we are called during Lent . . ." The fact is, we probably cannot ourselves accomplish that. We tend to be too secure in ourselves to be that open before God. Yet, he has prepared a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies, whatever or whoever that might be. For some, that may indeed be physical provisions. For many, it will be an encounter with God in worship in which they will receive a fresh anointing of God that will fill them to overflowing with his presence. It is not that we have to struggle and work to make things happen in our lives, that we have to work ourselves into a position where we can make something happen.
This psalm suggests in beautiful imagery that the table is already spread, and that we who are weary from the journey have a standing invitation to come to the table, to come into the presence of God in worship. Perhaps it is in the relaxing at the table spread by God, in coming into his presence in worship, that is itself the act of humility that places us before God as a willing recipient of his grace. The result of relaxing at God's table is the quiet security and trust that comes from letting him be the Shepherd, from trusting him with all the dark valleys of our lives, knowing that his "goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life."
If we are very careful in how the text is used so that we do not distort it into saying something that it does not say, this text can finally be used in this context as a setting for Eucharist. It is the same Shepherd of this Psalm, the one who restored life and led in right paths, who, incarnated in Jesus, called the disciples more than once to eat with him in remembrance of who he was and what they should become. The acting out of this meal in the Eucharist can be a profound expression of that humility before God, the willingness to confess our need of him, and a commitment to trust him for all the "lack" of our lives.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
Purple or Red Violet
Reading also used:
Easter 4, Year