Preparing to begin, my first thought was, “What can I say to this audience about the Twenty-Third Psalm?” If we memorized Old Testament passages when we were youngsters, Psalm 23 probably was one of them. W. Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 was first published almost fifty years ago, and has sold more than 2 million copies. Most ministers know Keller, if only in broad outline. (Some of his insights do not apply to shepherding in the Holy Land, but the volume remains a helpful resource.) Many pastors give at least a nod to Psalm 23 in funeral sermons or homilies, because of its reference to walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” What more can I say here?
So I did what we all were taught to do in our first course in hermeneutics/exegesis; I went back to the text. I “studied the fish” again. By itself, crunching numbers may not be the most exciting part of studying the biblical text, but as a “professional” I enjoy it; it’s never less than seven-and-a-half on a scale of ten. More to the point, numbers also lead to other observations, some of which–always–are both interesting and consequential.
A few of the numbers I found in this fresh look: “A Psalm of David” is all or part of the title of more than thirty psalms. Not counting these two words, then, the Hebrew text of Psalm 23 comprises fifty-five words. Ten are two-letter words; eleven are three-letter words; twenty-two are four-letter words. The remaining twelve are five, six, or seven letters each. That is, nearly eighty percent of the words of this psalm are two, three, or four letters each. As Hemingway famously noted, great writing can be great not because of its complexity, but in the opposite characteristic of a direct and artful simplicity. Of course, we will not be the psalmist, but can we try to emulate this model of simple greatness in our own sermons and writings?
This psalm comprises fifteen clauses. Fourteen are simple declaratives; only one is subjunctive/conditional, and it leads to a positive outcome. Of the fifteen clauses, nine consist of only two or three words each. Again, direct and artful simplicity.
The psalm contains thirteen first person pronouns. Some show the psalmist as benefiting directly from the actions of God or God’s agents; others signify genitival (possessive) or other relationships (objects of prepositions). Whatever its function, each advances the psalmist’s narrative of joy, contentment, and security in God’s super-abundant, never-ending providence.
Of course, Hebrew also employs second and third person pronouns. Additionally, most Hebrew verb forms intrinsically exhibit person, number, and gender–unlike English, which usually also requires pronouns (or nouns, of course) to impart that information. Taking both these into account, Psalm 23 reveals a quite astonishing dramatic turn midway through. Matter-of-factly, utterly without literary fanfare, the psalmist switched from third person to second person forms. Verses two and three contain four verbs whose subject is “he” (Yahweh), and one possessive pronoun “his” (Yahweh’s). From verse four, the pronouns are “you” (Yahweh) and “your.” Leaving aside talking about God, the psalmist began to talk to God. When we notice that, the effect could not be more powerful, moving, or hope-engendering.
Of course, all this data-gathering makes it impossible to miss the fact that Yahweh is the first word of the Hebrew text–and also the third from the last. Moreover, the psalmist would have been grammatically correct had he chosen to make Yahweh the very last word, forming a perfect inclusio. However, theological importance trumps literary effect here, as it should. The existential reality of the believer’s privilege of dwelling in “the house of Yahweh” retains its rightful place at the head of the clause–preempting what could become a temptation to pride over the duration of the stay, had the psalmist placed “forever” (“all my days”) first.
Once again, such renewed attention to an old, familiar friend of a text puts us in position to notice other, perhaps more important, features, leading us on to satisfying, reassuring, and even wisdom-expanding new discoveries. As it turns out, they come so many and so densely crowded that we are compelled to limit our further attention to the first two verses.
The psalm begins with a general statement, “Yahweh is my shepherd; I do not lack [for anything].” Everyone in the ancient Near East would have recognized the image. Israel’s God; some of the national and personal gods of Israel’s neighbors; even kings, as God’s (or the gods’) human representatives and agents, regularly were depicted as the “shepherds” of their people.
The psalm continues the metaphor with illuminating, confirming detail–familiar, even commonplace, to its first audience, yet seldom encountered by western Christian readers today. An accurate, if not quite eloquent, translation of verse 2 is, “In the spring-green steppe-land pastures, he [Yahweh] causes me to lie down, satisfied and secure; to the quiet-running brooks and limpid pools of water, he leads me [for the slaking of my thirst].”
Hebrew ne’ot is best translated, “steppe/steppe-land.” The common Akkadian cognate is nawum. When referring to the land itself, this root everywhere denoted transitional zones between the agricultural lands of permanent habitation and the true desert. Supporting pasturage during the winter rainy season and into mid-spring, this kind of steppe-land comprises the eastern approaches to Jerusalem and the other major towns of the Israelite highlands. In Judah, where David pastured his flocks, most of the eastern down-slope of the steppes supported grass enough for the winter-spring grazing season, as far as the dramatic geographical drop-off to the Jordan Rift Valley and the shores of the Dead Sea. Both local farming communities and the seasonally migrant pastoralists who today are called the Bedouin made good use of this rich, lush winter-spring grassland, the ne’ot.
We translate the Hiph’il (causative) form yarbitseni (from ravats), “He [Yahweh] causes me to lie down, satisfied and secure.” The total complex of this verb’s connotations is even more expansive than that. Lions lie down, stretched out in indolent ease, when they have gorged on a kill, secure in the knowledge that no other creature would dare attack the pride. As ruminants, sheep lie in quiet repose for hours, giving their digestive system time to do its work, secure–in their experience of the shepherd’s watchful care–that no other creature could attack the flock successfully while they remain close to their shepherd. (You may have a sheep figure in this pose in a Christmas crèche.)
Imaging this metaphorically for the human sheep of Yahweh’s flock, and attempting to express the nuances of ravats, an expansive paraphrase could read, “Yahweh causes me to lie down satisfied and secure, relaxed, at ease in the comfort and security of Yahweh’s wise, devoted, and constant provision–physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually confident that, as Yahweh’s faithfulness has not failed in the past, it will not fail in the future.” In the ne’ot, the pasture-lands, the shepherd’s physical presence is important to this state of ease in the sheep. As Jesus prepared to leave, he taught his inner circle of followers that our sure knowledge of the Shepherd’s presence would be vouchsafed neither through our physical senses nor our emotional feelings, but through the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence and ministration.
A final observation: I have hiked and driven the ne’ot of the Judean Wilderness east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I know firsthand that the unprepared novice can perish there if something goes wrong even a little, and help is not available. In early September, 1969, Dr. James Pike, a former Episcopal bishop, and his wife left their rented car in this steppe-land east of Bethlehem when it became stuck in a rut. They decided to separate; after several hours, Mrs. Pike was rescued, but by the time searchers found Dr. Pike, he had fallen to his death.
The shepherd, on the other hand, knows the paths into and around the ne’ot, the locations of pastures and waterholes, and the ways out. Only in the shepherd’s care can the sheep traverse these green pastures and, having grazed to satiation, lie down to rest in safety. We need not wonder at the universal appeal of the image of God as “my Shepherd.”
Professor of Old Testament,
Nazarene Theological Seminary