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Psalm 23

In this psalm, the Lord is both shepherd and banquet host. Given the difficult messianic imagery of Psalm 22 and the simultaneously awesome and terrifying picture of God in Psalm 24, it is important to remember the truth of Psalm 23. The Lord is a Good Shepherd who does not hide his chosen one, that specific and individual sheep out of all the flock, from dangerous places, but brings him through securely.

I hope that we have all known these moments of personal protection and love from the Father, in which we are led as a single sheep in the flock toward the good and rich life that is “royally provided”[1] to us in Christ. Green pastures and quiet waters. The Shepherd-God is the actor here, who “makes me lie down … he leads … he restores … he guides” (v. 2-3). It is not only knowing enough to let the sheep rest in those good places, but knowing enough to guide them through the difficult territory and protect them while you are in its midst. The rod and the staff—those symbols of authority, power and even violence are now protective instruments against the danger of the wilderness. The valley of deathly dark shadow carries no evil strong enough to overcome the shepherd.​

In verses 5 and 6, the image changes to a table of victory. The host of the feast, who we know to be God, has anointed the head of the honored guest—the cared-for sheep of the first stanza. Although the language of anointing is unrelated to the language that gets us our word for Messiah,[2] there is no doubt that this is an eschatological image. Victory over enemies, a favored guest at the table of the Lord and an eternal home in the house of the Lord.

In conjunction with the Gospel passage for this week, there is no way to escape the fact that the eschatology of Scripture is one in which peace is possible by the conquering power of God. Whether it is a rod and staff, conquered enemies or the tossing of people into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, there is no doubt that violence (or ferocity, rather) will have a role in the victory of the Kingdom of God. But, importantly, it is not our violence that establishes anything. The shepherd is faithful. We simply trust. The disjointed images of this psalm force us to consider that relationship of nonviolently receiving the Kingdom which is established in the Son, the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who conquers every evil on the Cross, outside the city, in the violent wilderness.

Considering our world, we can see and understand the deep importance of the rest envisioned in verses 1-4 and the rejoicing of verses 5-6. But we also know that in some sense, the Gospel exists in the silence between verses 4 and 5. The Messiah is led through the valley of the shadow of death and is not saved from that deepest shadow. Yet God, the faithful shepherd of Israel, raises this truest Israelite and true King of Israel, the New David to a Kingdom in which all enemies are defeated and in which goodness and love follow for all days. I cannot read verse 6 without an expectant look to Revelation 21 in which the Holy of Holies becomes the whole of the New Jerusalem. This Good Shepherd is the God who makes Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:6 possible and enables Isaiah to truly hope that God will make all things right—even turning cities into heaps where that is required.

Yet in the midst of all this, each lamb is seen and known. The “I” of this poem is the Messiah, but also, by our faith and in our prayer, it is you and me. It is the weak one in our midst who is handicapped or unemployed or who is homeless and so lives outside the normal systems of visibility. This psalm encourages us to seek those vulnerable lambs that they would know that, in Christ, they are protected and loved to be able to hope for the New Day which comes in Christ.

Jean Vanier writes, “All of us have a secret desire to be seen as saints, heroes, martyrs. We are afraid to be children, to be ourselves.”[3] Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the church of Jesus Christ does not have a social ethic (i.e. conservative or progressive), but it is a social ethic (a distinct set of practices rooted in the worship and sacrifice of Jesus).[4] The hope of the Church is not in joining hero-making movements, but in fiercely devoting ourselves to a childlike love. It is a childlike politic of love and fidelity which receives the wonder and grace of each day, is fiercely protective of the weak and follows the shepherd, trusting that whether today is a pasture or a valley, we always look forward to the Great Table at which Jesus will receive us and host us with joy. Let us prepare ourselves for that Day.

 

[1] VanGemeren, W. (2008). Psalms(Vol. 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (T. Longman III & D. E. Garland, Eds.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 253.

[2] VanGemeren, 256.

[3] Vanier, J. (2008). Becoming human. New York: Paulist Press.

[4] Paul, H. (2013). Stanley Hauerwas: Against Secularization in the church. Zeitschrift für Dialektische Theologie, 59(29), 2nd ser., 16. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from http://www.rug.nl/staff/h.j.paul/zdth2013.pdf

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