Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2012
Commentary on the Text
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
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!
This psalm is so profound in its simplicity that it can address many different contexts of life. In fact, it is this very lack of specificity wrapped in deeply moving imagery and confession that allows the psalm to serve as both lament, as people cry out from the depths of their pain, and as praise, as people rejoice at the verification of its truth in their own lives. In this sense, the most powerful Preaching Path for this Psalm may lead to the specific life needs of a local congregation or community of faith, no matter where they are in the cycle of orientation, disorientation, or reorientation (see Life Journeys in Patterns for Life).
Several dimensions of the psalm lend themselves to such application. There is an honesty about life in this psalm that even in the most moving expressions of devotion and faith still knows that darkness and tragedy may come. There is no false piety here that wants to use God as a magic amulet to ward off the dark side of life. There is just the calm assurance that even in the darkness, God walks beside us.
It is the faith of a child whose fears can be calmed simply by holding the hand of a parent, and yet whose fears are very real. It is the reality of childish fear in a dark room with monsters under the bed, and yet the comfort that comes when a parent simply enters the room. It is the presence of one who is trusted that brings comfort and dispels fear. Yet, there will be monsters under the bed tomorrow night, and the next. It may take a long time for the darkness to be no threat at all. And yet, as long as "you are with me" there is comfort amid all the hard realities of life.
Still, 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.
A second dimension of the psalm reveals that our experiences of God can teach us about God. This is not to say that our experiences can be used as a paradigm for all circumstances and all people, or that we can conclude that God is encompassed by our experiences of him. There is real danger in allowing personal ideas and opinions, even when those ideas are based on genuine personal encounters with God, to become a standard for righteousness on their own. That is how cults are born. God simply will not be reduced that small! Yet those experiences of God may put us in a position to learn about God beyond the things we have heard. Personal experience has a way of focusing our attention in a way that a thousand sermons do not.
This psalm calls us to reflect on our own personal religious experiences in light of the faith confessions of the larger community of Faith. It also suggests that our experiences with God, our personal I-Thou encounters with the Shepherd, will not be new revelations that no one has ever experienced before. This psalm suggests that our I-Thou encounters will affirm the experience of God that others have had and that have been confessed in the community of faith through the centuries. This reinforces the strongly communal nature of much of Scripture. Along this same vein, John Wesley suggested that truthful theology would be confirmed in human experience. It also affirms the faithfulness of God to His people, and becomes in an even larger dimension the ground for renewed trust and security.
Finally, there is probably the most difficult aspect of this psalm for those of us who live in the modern world. We find it easy to trust God in the abstract and to look to him for spiritual provision. And we find it just as easy from our rational bent to discard as just the cultural trappings of a primitive world view that God's providence and sustenance for his people actually would extend to physical things. From another direction, many of us have heard the idea of trusting God for physical things carried to such absurd extremes by "prosperity Gospel" preachers or "name it and claim it" religious hucksters that we have backed away from the whole idea.
Yet, this psalm makes a bold claim about God, that he really is concerned about the physical "lacks" of our lives. Indeed, we must be cautious here lest we confuse the affluence and materialism of our consumer society with genuine needs. Still, there is a faith confession here that God does provide for physical needs. I'm not sure we can always know exactly what that entails, when it will occur or in what circumstances, or how it comes about. But this psalm says it does. And our experience confirms it. And when it happens, we know (see Conclusion in God in the Quietness). And then we pray this psalm!
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