Fourth Sunday of Easter

A right path leads the flock where they need to be

Seedling growing between iron bars
Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 8, 2022

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Commentary on Psalm 23

The ubiquitous Psalm 23 has enriched the lives of believers, both Jews and Christians. It is so frequently recited in Christian funeral and memorial services (whereas Psalm 90 is more commonly used in the Jewish services) that many may imagine it is a Christian prayer. The first line, which also serves as the title, says it all: “The Lord is my shepherd.” 

We may imagine a shepherd of the Middle East, who pays undivided attention to the well-being of the sheep. Such care preempts any sense of scarcity. “I shall not want” creates a gateway to superabundance, leading to the next scene of the sheep lying down in “lush meadows” (verse 2, Eugene Peterson’s The Message). Ordinarily, we think of people lying down on our backs, but most animals do not do that. Some animals may sleep standing or kneeling, but most of them sprawl. Perhaps we have a picture of exhaustion here—alternatively, a posture of repose. Thanks to the good shepherd, the sheep finds rest, sustenance, and confidence in the green pastures next to the water, where everything that the sheep may need or want has been provided.

In the next scene the poet is “beside still waters” (verse 2). For ancient Hebrews, water is often an image of primordial chaotic powers (see also Psalms 33:7; 74:13). Instead of the water that is a scare, Psalm 23:2 depicts quiet waters that present no threat. The poet has not come upon this place of peace by accident. The Lord’s gentle guidance (see also Isaiah 40:11) made possible what could have been impossible otherwise.

The poet continues dwelling on the shepherd, who leads the flock “in right paths” (verse 3b). Often, many of us assume that a right path is straight, but there are not many roads with no bend in nature. Even in the urban settings planned by the civil engineers, the straight street is more uncommon than common. Apart from the shape or condition of the track, a right path leads the flock where they need to be. Physically, the path may be crooked, but it is the right path for me. The poet recognizes that God does that for the sake of the divine name’s sake, making each crooked turn into a moment when God’s gracious involvement is recognized.

The poet makes no mistake about life that can take us to a dark time and pace. The KJV has made the “darkest valley” famous by calling it “the valley of shadow of death”—one of the most memorable examples of the early modern English Bible. Danger lurks in the dark, but the psalmist declares “I fear no evil.” Difficult situations cannot be avoided, and fear comes with a double punch: one with the threat of evil and the other the fear of it. With the Lord, the poet is confident that neither will grab him. The poet has no fear, not because of courage or a strong heart but because of the Lord’s accompanying presence. The proposition of divine companionship echoes the same in the name Immanuel.

The shepherd that walks with the sheep carries a rod and a staff. The former is a weapon to fight off hostile beasts and others. The latter guides the sheep that tend to go astray. The implements provide comfort—a word that conveys not only relief but also the recovery from grief (see Genesis 38:12; Jeremiah 31:15).

In the midst of the specter of terror, the poet imagines a feast. As long as one can eat, one can endure anything. Of course, one would not ordinarily plan to have a meal while facing those who may have hostile intent. Nor should one refuse to eat in comfortable situations. All provisions one may get is what the Lord has provided. Even in harm’s way, the poet names God’s anointing—the gift of abundance like the precious oil dripping down on Aaron’s beard and his garment in Psalm 133:2. And the cup overflows freely. The overage is not a picture of wastefulness, although celebration and frugality do not always make a fitting couple. Instead, it evokes an image of superabundance. Besides, the surplus may quench the thirst of someone random.

The poet concludes with a declaration of faith. In Hebrew, the adverb that heads the sentence (“surely”) speaks not only of certitude but also of confidence. The Hebrew can also translate as “only,” with which the poem anticipates nothing but “goodness and mercy” in the days ahead. Troubles may come and go, but God will always accompany us for all seasons.

Most modern translations state that God’s goodness and mercy “follow” the poet. This traditional translation is tolerable, but it hardly does justice to the drift of the poetry, for the Hebrew literally means “pursue.” The same verb is found in the description of Pharaoh’s army pursuing the people of Israel in Exodus 14:8, 9, 23. In other words, the poet speaks of God’s goodness and mercy in a vigorous pursuit like enemy forces pursuing their target. In Psalm 23, God comes after us and will not rest until we find goodness and mercy.

The dynamic life of being pursued is paired with one of settling down (literally, sitting down). The latter state of serenity comes with the fantastic time stamps “all the days of my life” and “my whole life long.” The poet wants to live all the time in the house of the Lord. One may be tempted to imagine that the poet goes to the temple in Jerusalem every day. Since the poet imagines being a sheep in the Lord’s fold, however, the poet probably means it metaphorically, referring to the house of the Lord as the location of God’s presence. There is no conflict here. Some early church itineraries to the Holy Land invite one to wonder whether the pilgrimage was imaginary or virtual. Many cannot make the trip but still can be in a state of worship before God for life. In a comparable manner, the poet of Psalm 23 also imagines being in the house of the Lord, even when the temple may have been beyond reach. After all, we can always be in the presence of God the good shepherd, no matter where we may be physically.