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Easter 4B Psalm

Psalm 23

Preaching people’s favorite passage from the Bible can lead a preacher to vacillate between feelings of comfort and discomfort. The 23rd Psalm certainly makes the list of “most cherished” biblical texts. It probably will be known from memory for a good portion of the congregations where you may be preaching. Therefore, preaching from this psalm will elicit great interest from many, but I am also reminded that the stakes of dealing with people’s favorite texts are high. I recall the looks on many faces when I read Psalm 23 in a non-King James Version during a funeral. It just doesn’t sound right without the eth’s, thy’s, and thou’s. Preaching this psalm, you will easily be granted people’s interest and attention, but you may have more work to cut through their own interpretation and appropriation of the text than you would for less well-known passages.

The congregational familiarity and comfort with the 23rd Psalm, though it raises the stakes of preaching a bit, is actually a good entry into preaching it. Embrace the opportunity to surprise the congregation by reading a new translation. Read it aloud in the NIV, NRSV, NLT, or ESV. Notice the way that a modern translation sounds odd to your own ears and acknowledge the familiarity we have with the good ‘ol King James version.

Highlighting the seventeenth-century language serves not just to show off your collection of bible translations, however. There is a sense in which one of the key theological shifts in the psalm is cloaked for many by the outdated seventeenth-century King James English that we have come so accustomed to hearing—“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). The valley of the shadow of death is such a profound and meaningful metaphor for those who have gone through trials, struggles, and seasons of despair. And yet, for many, the thy’s and thou’s of verses 4-5 hide the profound shift in person that exists within the psalm. Verses 1-3 are in the third person. Verse 6 is in the first person, but God is referenced again from a distance (“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”). But in verses 4-5, God is you. “I fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me… You anoint my head with oil…”

The psalm has two basic structures. There is the “role” structure of The Lord as Shepherd, vv. 1-4 and The Lord as Host, vv. 5-6, but there is also the structure from the perspective of the speaker of/in the psalm in which we find: vv. 1-4b, Speech about the Lord; vv. 4c-5, Speech to the Lord; v. 6, Speech about the Lord. This psalm shifts from claims about the Lord: “The Lord is my shepherd… he makes me… he leads me… for his name’s sake,” to deeply personal second person language of direct address to God. The tone shift is present in the midst of acknowledging the difficulties of faithful trust. In the midst of the dark valley, in the midst of enemies, when aware of evil—then does the psalm shift to a tone and posture of prayer. [1]

This shift is significant to highlight, lest we miss the key theological point that the peaceful image of lying down in green pastures comes after a time of struggle, fear, despair, and conflict. Artur Weiser notes that this peace is hard-won. It is not a carefree realization, but rather, this peace is the “mature fruit of a heart which, having passed through many bitter experiences and having fought many battles (vv. 4-5), had been allowed to find at the decline of life in its intimate communion with God (vv. 2, 6) the serenity of a contented spirit—peace of mind (v. 6) and, in all dangers, strength.”[2] A hard won peace is much more significant than peace that comes without conflict.

In this way, the preacher has an opportunity with this text to draw out the vivid imagery of conflict on the way to the more likely-held view that this psalm reminds us of the peaceful landing place of assurance with God. Remember that imagery is powerful. Weiser notes that “this psalm has gained immortality by virtue of the sweet charm of its train of thought and its imagery, and by the intimate character of the religious sentiments expressed therin.”[3] The psalm has immortality even to the point of pop culture.[4] For example, rapper Coolio invokes this psalm’s imagery in the song “Gangsta’s Paradise”: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there's none left.”

But, the power of the imagery should also be a homiletical warning. Much like Jesus’ parables, the imagery in this song of trust is vivid through an economy of words that carries great power. I do not recommend trying to explain what these various images of God would look like in their original context—what was a banquet like? How much oil was used in an anointing? Was there an actual valley of the shadow of death that is being referenced here? Instead, point to the ways that these images are handles for those who follow God to grasp what it means to understand God as “shepherd, host, and covenant-maker.”[5] These images are door openings to recall our own experiences of God, not summative, universal descriptions.

There is a richness to the psalm because of the breadth of the images packed into these 6 verses. Shepherd, host, and covenant-maker are images of God, but there are also allusions to the exodus, rest, and heaven. The exodus concept of divine rest is invoked in verse one, but furthermore, God’s active pursuit of care that resonates with God’s agency in the exodus is in this psalm as well. Along with the image of God as host, the psalm closes with the recognition that “goodness and mercy will follow all of my days.” And yet, mercy is God’s hesed, God’s loving-kindness. The translation of “follow” should be more accurately pursue.[6] Rolf Jacobson notes that there is tenacity to the sense of the Hebrew word translated “follow” or “pursue” (radap). He states, “here, the divine attributes of goodness…and hesed are pictured as incarnate forces, which will not rest until they have tracked down and provided a safe harbor for the endangered psalmist.”[7] Much like God actively calling Moses to be a leader through whom the Lord would act to rescue Israel, this psalm closes with a recognition that God is not passively waiting for us to pass through these trials, but God’s loving-kindness is tenaciously pursuing us in order to carry us through to the rest that we desire (and God wants us to enjoy).

You know your preaching context—what are the enemies, struggles, temptations, conflicts, and fears that are pursuing your congregation? More than just a funeral text for the faithful departed, Psalm 23 offers you as preacher with an opportunity to tarry expectantly with the congregation as you invoke these images of God to a hurting people who are in great need of a reminder that though the journey will include strife, valleys, enemies, and evil—God is pursuing us all in order to bring us to the true rest that exceeds the world’s understanding. And if some of your congregation feels they have already been through it, then they must be invited to testify to God’s activity for them, “for the sake of his name” (v. 3) so that the world may know that not only is God pursuing peace with tenacity, there are kingdom glimpses and foretastes of it already being made present today.

[1] Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 23,” in, Nancy L DeClaissé-Walford, Rolf A Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 239.

[2] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Trans. by Herbert Hartwell, The Old Testament Library (Westminster Press, Philadelphia,1962), 227.

[3] Ibid. 227.

[4] Karl Jacobson, “Through the Pistol Smoke Dimly: Psalm 23 in Contemporary Film and Song,” Included in the list are: “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, “Ganster’s Paradise” by Coolio, “The River” by Good Charlotte, “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Kills You” by Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G., “Sickman” by Alice in Chains, “Love Rescue Me” by U2, “Sheep” by Pink Floyd, "Ripple” by the Grateful Dead, "Shadow of Deth” by Megadeth, and “Jah Guide” by Peter Tosh.

[5] Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 133.

[6] Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 23,” 244.

[7] Ibid.

Professor, Anderson Unversity

Nathan Willowby

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