It feels like I’ve read/heard/recited Psalm 23 more times than I can count. There were rewards in Sunday School for putting it to memory. It’s has been embroidered, engraved, chanted, and rapped. Saints and sinners know it. We hear it at funerals, and we see it on our great aunt’s mantle as a “Precious Moment.”
It is perhaps the most familiar Psalm of all. It has seeped its way into pop culture, as it is referenced in song (As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left), film and television (for those who are fans of the series LOST, how can one keep from shivering recalling Mr. Eko recite the King James Version of the Psalm as he lay his brother Yemi to rest?).
What’s remarkable is that it has continued to pervade culture despite few really having a clue what a shepherd does and the rarity of finding one who ever aspires to be a shepherd. If the metaphor were not so strong growing up in church, if the angels had not made that proclamation to those lowly shepherds on that “beautiful, scandalous night” I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about what a shepherd does or how they were perceived in the Ancient Near East. But somehow the strength of the metaphor has been preserved. It has been the church that has preserved it for us and for that we can be thankful.
At the same time, with all the familiarity involved in this Psalm, there are hints of a lost metaphor within the text. It wasn’t until reading this Psalm in preparation for the fourth Sunday of Easter that I noticed something I hadn’t ever before. The Psalmist is led by Yahweh to green pastures, still waters, on right paths (for the sake of Yahweh), through dark valleys, to a plain made safe by God (a mesa, or tableland) and ultimately to the place the Psalmist desires the most: to be at one with Yahweh in the house of the LORD--the temple. This Psalm hints at the ancient practice of Pilgrimage.
For us, our most common expressions of pilgrimage of flimsy. We put on our war colors then walk, get in the car or on the train and enter through the gates of our favorite ball team to yell and cheer them on for two to three hours. Then we go home. Pilgrimage isn’t a life goal or something looked forward to as a pillar of our faith. Stories about the Mayflower are a part of elementary curriculum. Still yet many of our Muslim brothers and sisters make the Hajj journey as an act of piety. But we live in a transient world where we can get a “Wanna Get Away” rate last minute is part of the dominant script that has profaned pilgrimage.
But the holy journey of pilgrimage is at the heart of Psalm 23, because it was at the heart of the poets and prophets of Israel: to live in the land God had promised and worship God with a holy worship in the house of God.
The use of the Shepherd metaphor leads me to believe this Psalm found its final form during the Exile. While commonly attributed to the boy-shepherd David, the shift of the metaphor to Yahweh as the Great Shepherd appears in many of the prophet’s exilic writings. For example, Second Isaiah begins with God’s word of comfort to his people who have been in exile. The prophet receives this word:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in his arms,
Any carry them in his bosom,
And gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40:11, NSRV).
Ezekiel takes the metaphor a step further, moving from Yahweh in the third person to Yahweh calling referring to Godself as Shepherd:
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness (Ezekiel 34:11-12, NSRV).
During the Exile, the great prophets of Israel began to understand Yahweh as the great shepherd who would lead them back into the promised land so they could worship the LORD properly--in the land promised to them with the Temple as the center of their lives. When Psalm 23 has the context of Exile, the hope of “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” gains new meaning. After losing every bit of meaning to life, the Psalmist maintains this fantastic assurance that Yahweh has remained faithful even in Exile. He writes with confidence even having gone through the valley of the shadow of death. Yahweh will lead them home. They will one day worship Yahweh in the temple again. The right relationship of the covenant will be restored. The new pilgrimage is returning to the promised land out of Exile.
And perhaps most beautifully, this Psalm takes on a whole new dimension when we read it in Christ. We read this Psalm on the fourth Sunday of Easter and the memory of the events leading up the the resurrection are still fresh in our minds. We remember the pilgrimage that Jesus took with his cross to the top of Golgotha. From that horrible day we can begin to conceive what God with us means. Jesus did not only pass through the shadow of death but passed through death itself. It is through his own body that we find where God’s true dwelling is. We have full access to the Father because the fullness of God dwells (to our great surprise) not in a place, but in a person.
Because God vindicating Christ by resurrecting him from the dead, the truth of Psalm 23 becomes more true in a way that might even surprise the Psalmist. The shepherd has become the wounded lamb. Through his broken body we can become one with the Father. The hope of the Psalmist transforms into a whole new meaning: Christian hope becomes the faithful act following the Lamb into the New Creation.
And surely we will dwell with the house of the LORD forever.