This week, I had to depart from my normal pattern which is to preach on the Gospel for the week, as I could not pass up the opportunity to preach on Psalm 23.
In general, I love the Psalms. Pick a number between 1 and 150, and go turn to that Psalm. Almost without fail, you will come across a Psalm that takes you from the heights of human joy to the depths of suffering. Most of the Psalms go from "God, you are so great" to "Why have you crushed me beneath your heel" in a heartbeat, and in that sense, I think they are some of the most honest assessments of what it is like to live a life of faith.
Even if you are not a Christian, you have heard Psalm 23. It is ubiquitous in our culture. It is heard in films and on television, and snatches of it have even made their way into really awful rap songs.
Most of us associate this Psalm with funerals because this is the Psalm the minister is always reading at a funeral on TV and in movies. Indeed, in real life this Psalm is almost always read at funerals, perhaps because the words are so comforting. It must be acknowledged that many people dislike this Psalm because they associate it with funerals, but in reality, the 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful things ever written, and its words of comfort are often welcome at funerals.
The Psalm opens with some very familiar imagery where God is presented as a shepherd, and his people are his flock. Sheep, it must be said, are not very bright animals and the Psalms predate industrial farms where livestock stay in one place and food is shipped in. Shepherds literally had to lead their flocks over the countryside to find forage and water, and the sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd for their very lives.
Many of us bristle at this imagery because we associated sheep with mindless conformity, and we resent the thought of anyone directing us. But the imagery that is being used in this Psalm is not coercive, but tender:
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters".
Sign me up, that sounds lovely.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff - they comfort me."
Once again, some very reassuring words. The rod was simply a wooden bat that was used to defend the sheep against predators and sheep rustlers, and the staff was a long hooked staff that was used to direct the sheep, to help them out of water or over tricky terrain they could not navigate on their own.
This phrase also contains the words, "for thou art with me", which is truly the beating heart and soul of this Psalm, but more about that later.
The Psalm then changes imagery. We are no longer sheep, but we are at a banquet table in the house of the Lord, where we are assured we will dwell for the remainder of our days.
All in all, a very compelling and comforting image of a God who cares for us, protects us and in whose presence it is a delight to be.
But I want to go back to "for thou are with me". Even in English translations of this Psalm, that passage is found almost dead center, but in the original Hebrew, it was the center of the Psalm with precisely 26 words on either side of it.
In literary terms, it's not quite a chiasm, but the centrality of this idea that God is with us is hardly a coincidence. I think that if this Psalm has any central theme or message, it is that God is with us through times of plenty and lean times, through times of joy and times of sadness, through times of peace and times of tumult. Literally and figuratively, these themes revolve around that central concept in this Psalm.
There is one other point which I think is quite interesting in this Psalm, and it goes back to my previous blog, "Following is not the opposite of leading". The last phrase of the Psalm says, "Surely thy goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" (italics mine). The original Hebrew word in the Psalm means "pursue", so a literal translation would be "Surely thy goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life".
Goodness and mercy are not things that follow us like lost puppies or tired children, they are things that actually pursue us, that hunt us down wherever we go. No matter how far off the path, no matter how deep into the valley of the shadow of death, no matter how far from grace we fall, those two things, goodness and mercy, that characterize the nature of God so well, will hunt us down and find us.
As I write this, I know that several people in my life are going through difficult times, and maybe so are you. I hope that the words of the 23rd Psalm are words in which we can find solace, words from which we can draw the same hope and strength that countless generations have found in those same words.