Commentary on Psalm 23
Consider the vulnerability of a sheep.
A sheep is a particularly vulnerable creature, especially when on its own. Sheep need a leader so as not to wander aimlessly, and will follow their leader even into certain danger. Sheep have no defense against predators except for flocking, yet their instinctive flight response to danger can also cause panic and scattering. Individual sheep are highly stressed when separated from their flock. Indeed, sheep must be able to see each other in order to graze without agitation, and the loss of that visual contact can lead to further panic and flight. A lost sheep is, if you will, a sitting duck.
Texts in which the people of God are depicted as sheep arise from the experiences of vulnerable communities. The people are scattered and have fallen prey to those bent on Israel’s destruction. These passages offer assurance that their Lord is with them, to lead them as their shepherd (Psalms 95:7 and 100:3), to rescue the scattered and bring them to their own land (Ezekiel 34:11-16), and to gather lambs to God’s bosom and gently lead them home (Isaiah 40:11).
Our text for today, Psalm 23, is spoken by one who knows fresh pain. The writer speaks for a community that has recently walked through the darkest valley, and has emerged, trembling and stumbling and blinking in the light. Just such a story of suffering and deliverance is told in Psalm 22, and the two psalms can be read as companions.
Indeed, Psalm 23 offers assurance in the very places where Psalm 22’s lament lacks it. Reading Psalm 23 in light of Psalm 22 emphasizes the depth of that assurance; it is not an assurance cheaply bought, but is the hard-won assurance of those who have suffered greatly and felt the gentle guidance of their shepherd.
Psalm 22 contains the traditional elements of Psalms of lament, but with a distinctive pattern. While the text includes the customary elements of lament (verses 1-2, 6-8, 12-18), petition (verses 10-11 and 19-21), statement of trust (verses 3-5 and 9-10), and praise (verses 21b-31), Psalm 22 is heavy on lament, and withholds all praise until after deliverance has occurred (“From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me,” verse 21b).
Eschewing a more typical pattern that intersperses lament and petition with trust and praise, Psalm 22 layers lament upon petition upon escalating lament, with a few words of trust in God’s deliverance sprinkled in. This psalm voices the increasing desperation of a community that has been encircled by enemies and whose life is all but gone.
It is in response to these desperate laments that the writer of Psalm 23 delightedly proclaims, again and again, trust in the Lord. It is as if the desperation of 22 is matched by the exuberant trust of 23. Yet the exuberance does not erase the pain; rather, assurances of God’s care are a salve applied precisely to the particular wounds of Psalm 22.
The psalmist’s deep sense of abandonment, heard especially in those haunting words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1), is healed in 23:1-3: “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me … he restores my soul.” Most poignantly, 23:4 asserts that even in the darkest valley, there is nothing to fear, “for you are with me.” The shift from third-person description to second-person address underscores the intimacy of the divine presence; the one who seemed to have forsaken the people in Psalm 22 is here the one who is fully with them even in their deepest despair.
The heart-wrenching depictions of acute suffering in Psalm 22:14-18 are met in Psalm 23 with lavish descriptions of refreshment for the body and soul. Being relentlessly humiliated and pursued by mortal enemies (Psalm 22:7-9, 12-13, 16) has left the speaker “poured out like water,” with a heart “melted like wax” and a tongue stuck to a parched mouth, lying in “the dust of death.” With shriveled hands and feet and protruding bones, the sufferer is as good as dead in the eyes of the pursuers, as they cast lots for and divide up the sufferer’s clothing. Psalm 22 describes an affliction so acute that the very body and spirit of the sufferer are wasting away.
In response to this, the speaker in Psalm 23 describes the restoration that God the shepherd provides. Green pastures, still waters, a rod to protect and a staff to guide, all of this restores the soul. The table set in the presence of those enemies refreshes the parched throat with an overflowing cup. God is the host at a feast of thanksgiving, and the sufferer is the honored guest, whose head is anointed with oil. In response to the sufferer’s wasting away in Psalm 22, Psalm 23 depicts the overflowing refreshment of God’s presence, which restores the sufferer in body and soul.
Assurance of God’s presence and care does not erase evil and suffering. Nowhere in the Psalms do we find a naïve trust, but always one that is fully aware of what has been lost. Divine deliverance does not mean that evil is eradicated. Indeed, it is still in the presence of enemies that the psalmist sits down at God’s table. There is no suggestion here that enemies have become friends.
But Psalm 23 insists that we can trust in deliverance in the midst of evil; the deliverance is true, it’s real. Whatever preys upon us, individually and as communities, we are not defeated, because God is with us. Imagine if we lived as if we really knew this truth, as if we really feared no evil, because our trust is in God. Imagine where no longer being driven by our fear might take us. Imagine if we, the vulnerable flock of the divine, knew ourselves forever to be pursued by the goodness and mercy of God.