Hello, friends! This is Mark Heffley and this is the fourth episode of our on-the-go Lenten Bible Study Series on the Psalms. And this week we have what may very well be one of your favorite psalms. I just Googled “most popular psalms” and Ps 23 showed up as #1 on several of the lists. So this psalm may be familiar to you. If it is, I would encourage you to slow down a bit as you read over it this week. Sometimes familiarity can cause us to pass over a text too quickly. At least that’s true for me. So let’s slow down and dive into Ps 23.
From beginning to end, this psalm is a prayer of trust with three main movements. First, the psalmist affirms his trust in the Lord as shepherd. Second, we’re in the “dark valley” or the “valley of the shadow of death,” and the psalmist affirms his trust in God’s protection. It ends with the Lord as the gracious host of a feast and the psalmist trusting that even “in the sight of my enemies,” the Lord will sustain him and give him joy.
The dark valley and intimacy with God
If you look closely, there’s a cue that the middle – the dark valley – is the pivotal moment in the psalm. You see, on either end of the poem the psalmist speaks of God in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd,” “He makes me lie down,” “He prepares a table before me.” But in the dark valley the psalmist speaks much more intimately with God: “I fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and staff comfort me.” In the Hebrew and the early Greek translation, this “you” is emphasized. It’s the equivalent of putting the “you” in italics: “you are with me.”
Though easy to pass over, this shift to second person conveys a theological insight which we see play out in scripture and the lives of the saints: there is a connection between intimacy with God and the experience of suffering. This is one of the big mysteries of the Christian life. It’s not as though God needs suffering in order to draw us closer. Nor is it the case that we need evil in order to appreciate the good. Christianity has never endorsed a yin-yang philosophy. It is because sin has been introduced into God’s good world through humanity that suffering and death have become features of our lives (Wis 1:12-14). And God does not rejoice in this; He doesn’t even rejoice in the death of the wicked (Ez 33:11)! Yet God chose to make suffering and death the path to eternal life in Christ Jesus (Mt 16:25). He thereby refashioned them.
And so there’s a radical tension in the Christian life. We see this first in Jesus: Jesus wanted both to avoid (Lk 22:42) and to embrace (Lk 22:15) his suffering; His death was the result of sin and betrayal (Mt 26:24) as well as of the Father’s will (Mt 26:24); The cross was both an experience of shame and humiliation (Heb 12:2) as well as the greatest expression of love (Jn 15:13). If there’s a tension in Jesus’ experience of suffering, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we experience this tension, too. But our psalm reminds us that in some mysterious way, suffering – even though God never rejoices in our suffering – leads to intimacy with God.
“Why have you forsaken me?”
This tension is found in reading Ps 22 and Ps 23 together. The Church has always seen in Ps 22 a poetic depiction of the sufferings of Christ, and in this psalm God is quite distant. It begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You can’t get more distant than that. Yet as the psalm continues, the tone turns more and more to one of confident trust in God’s presence and ability to save. And this confidence in the Lord brings the psalmist comfort, just as the rod and staff do in Ps 23. Suffering and experiences of supposed distance from God are not inimical to real intimacy with God. We can cry out “why have you forsaken me?!” while we also have confidence that God is truly closer to us now than in our experiences of the “green pastures.”
Movement 1: The Lord is my shepherd
The first movement of our psalm depicts the Lord as a shepherd. As discussed in past episodes, this metaphor was a common way in the Ancient Near East to speak of a king. So, too, were the actions of leading to pasture and of watering. This shepherd-king image is applied to God elsewhere in Scripture, too, but there’s something unique about how it’s used here. In other psalms, for example, the image is a communal one: “O Shepherd of Israel, hear us” (80:1); “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (100:3). But here, the image is made more personal: “my shepherd.” Another thing to point out is the connection to our first reading from 1 Samuel. In the episode recounted here, Samuel goes to Jesse’s family to find a king and he ends up anointing David. David is a shepherd and so he becomes a great image (despite his faults) of the Great King, the Good Shepherd to come.
The Shepherd-King does four things in our psalm: 1) leads to pasture and 2) to water, 3) restores / turns around one’s soul, and 4) leads one in the path of righteousness. We’ll return to the first two when discussing the third movement. For now we can note the double meaning contained in the latter two actions. First, where the poem says “he restores my soul,” the early Greek translation (the Septuagint, which was widely cited by the New Testament authors and early Christians) has “he turns around my soul.” In the later biblical tradition, “turning around” denotes conversion. This is the literal meaning of Jesus’ words, “Repent (turn around)!” (Mt 3:2). The movement to the green pastures and still water goes by way of conversion. This ties in beautifully with the fourth action.
Paths of Righteousness
On one level, “he leads me in paths of righteousness” can simply mean God keeping the psalmist safe on his journey. And why would God do this? Because that is simply who God is. The psalmist has complete confidence in God’s protection because of God’s character and covenant fidelity. This is what he means by saying “for his name’s sake.” A consistent feature of the Psalms is that they appeal little to our own character or good words. These are not the basis of our confidence and hope. Rather, the Psalms repeatedly appeal to God’s character and fidelity.
On another level, “he leads me in paths of righteousness” can denote following the commandments of the Lord. The image of “paths” or “the way” is used in this manner throughout Scripture. For example, in Deuteronomy we’re told, “You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:32-33 ESVCE).
The Way of the Cross
This language of the way is later taken up by followers of Jesus to refer to Christianity (Acts 9:2). And what is this way? At the time of the psalm’s original writing, the way was set out in the laws of the old covenant which God established with Israel through Moses (see Deuteronomy above). But Jesus reconstitutes the way. Though he does not abolish the laws of the old covenant, he fulfills them (Mt 5:17) on the cross. The way of the cross, then, becomes simply “the way” (Mk 10:52). So as Christians, when we pray to be led on the path of righteousness, we are praying not only that God guard and protect us but also that he help us follow Christ on the way of a cross-shaped life. This involves obeying his word, renouncing our self-interest, and pursuing the good of our neighbors (Phi 2:6-11). Lent is the perfect time to begin doing this with renewed energy. But we must keep in mind what the psalm tells us. It is not us but the Lord who turns us around and leads us up this path. In other words, he must initiate and sustain all of our efforts.
Movement 2: Dark Valley
This movement was already discussed above, but here I just want to briefly point out the connection to our second reading from Ephesians. Paul reminds us that, “You were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). There is a difference between walking through the dark valley and living in the dark valley. We are to be in the world but not of the world (Jn 17:11, 14). Ironically, the dark valley can be a place of comfort for many, but for those who follow Christ, it will become the source of suffering and opposition.
Movement 3: Lord as Host
The poem ends with the Lord providing nourishment (table, cup) and honor (anointing the head) to the psalmist. What’s depicted here, though, is not simply a good meal. It’s a communal, liturgical feast. This comes across even more clearly when read in light of Christ. Christ, the Good Shepherd, leads us beside “still waters” and anoints our head with oil in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. He then prepares the table of the Eucharistic bread and cup before us. On one hand, this poem expresses our hope of eternal life, the eternal banquet of heaven. On the other hand, this banquet is enjoyed “in the presence of my enemies.” We are not quite out of danger. It’s as though Christ has invited us into his tent, the flaps are open, and we can see the enemy outside. Yet, this does not disturb the psalmist. His confident trust is not shaken. So too we celebrate the Eucharist even in the midst of the dark valley with dangers – or at the very least, sources of anxiety – all around. Yet the Holy Spirit leads us to express our confident trust through this psalm.
Ps 23 and the Man Born Blind (Jn 9)
In our Gospel this weekend, we have a rather long account from John about a man born blind who’s healed by Jesus. Like many elements of our psalm, this story can be read on two levels. First, it’s about the healing of physical blindness. On a deeper level, though, the physical blindness is a symbol or a sign of spiritual blindness, of living in the dark valley. As this man comes to physically see, he also comes to see Jesus with a deeper mode of seeing.
Look at the first time the man talks about Jesus. He refers to him simply as “the man called Jesus.” As the story goes on, though, he calls Jesus a “prophet,” and later as a “man from God.” This progression of deeper and deeper sight comes to a climax when he recognizes Jesus as “the Son of Man” and worships him. The healing of his physical blindness is a sign of the deeper healing he underwent: the healing of his ability to recognize Jesus.
This progressive vision is paralleled by the regressive vision of some of the Pharisees. As the man comes to see Jesus more and more, these others become more and more blind. Though able to physically see, they remain in the dark valley, unable to recognize the Shepherd who wants to lead them to good pasture and prepare a table before them.
It’s also important to notice how the man was healed. First, Jesus takes mud mixed with his saliva and anoints the man’s head (specifically, his eyes). Then he tells the man to go wash in water. Already you should recognize some parallels to our psalm. Jesus is the deeper meaning of Psalm 23. A couple other details are worth noticing. First, the pool of water is called “Siloam” and John is careful to translate it for us. It means “Sent.” John sees here – and wants us to see – a deeper spiritual truth being conveyed through the man washing at this pool. The man is able to see because he is washed in Jesus. What? Okay, let’s unpack this.
Though it’s never used directly as a title, “sent” is arguably John’s favorite way to refer to Jesus. The word “sent” is used forty times to designate Jesus throughout this gospel. As an example, you can look at 5:38 where Jesus says, “you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.” So why does John make sure we know that Siloam means “Sent”? Because he wants us to understand the deeper message of this healing. On one level, the man’s physical healing involved washing in some pool called Siloam. But his spiritual healing, his ability to see Jesus, came from being washed in the One Sent. How is one washed in the One Sent? Through faith and the sacrament of faith: Baptism.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Church has always connected this reading from John with the sacrament of Baptism. Since the early Church it’s been used in the Lenten baptismal scrutinies (as it will be used this Sunday), and in ancient catacomb art, this story is depicted in connection with baptism. It is through baptism that one is “enlightened” (Heb 6:4; 10:32), enabled to truly see Jesus.
And so, returning to our psalm, we see that Christ and the sacraments almost jump off the page. The Good Shepherd leads us to the still waters of baptism, anoints us as kings like David in baptism and confirmation, and he sets the table of the Eucharist before us. Because of the fidelity and love of this Shepherd, we can have confidence and peace even in the midst of the dark valley and with our enemies in sight. We can say as the Holy Spirit directs us: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”