Here are the words of Psalm 23:
5 You prepare a table before mePsalm 23 (NRSV)
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
To a wide range of people these are familiar words. Whether you are the church-going kind or not, there are likely a few phrases that ring a bell. If you’ve ever heard the 1995 Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise, you’ve heard a line from Psalm 23. The song opens with “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” which echoes the King James Version’s “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”. In the New Revised Standard Version, the same verse gets translated as, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley…”, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but still.
Suffice it to say, Psalm 23 is a part of the common consciousness of (at least Western) culture. Coolio songs aside, the perspective on the psalm may sometimes be a little limited by its popularity. The psalm is often a reading at funerals, perhaps because of the King James Version’s “shadow of death”. Maybe you’ve heard it at one before, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Despite its associations, the psalm has more to offer than comfort in the face of death, though it certainly offers that, too. Much of the psalm’s value comes from the help it provides for navigating life’s paths. It certainly promises a lot of guidance and support. That promise comes from the imagery of God as shepherd and host. Further, a line at the center of Psalm 23 casts a little more light on the nature of that promise.
The good shepherd of Psalm 23
The psalm starts off with a confident claim. The writer of the psalm says that God is their shepherd. The implication of the imagery of a sheep and a shepherd are culturally deep for ancient Israel. The diligent and attentive care that a shepherd provides for their sheep is common in many cultures, too.
Beyond that, lingering over the second verse of the psalm provides a welcome calm. Green pastures and still waters provide some serene visuals. Clearly, the writer of psalm 23 wants to underline the quality of God’s care. It provides comforting peace.
The scenery isn’t the only source of comfort. The writer vouches for the quality of the shepherd’s guidance. Psalm 23 describes the sheep being lead along “right paths.” In Psalm 1 the right path and wrong path show up, here, in the care of the good shepherd, only right paths appear.
Down in the valley
It all sounds pretty rosy up to now. The pastures are green and bursting with life. The water is as still as glass. Everything is “right.” The journey isn’t smooth sailing the whole way, though. Even the right path apparently contains a “dark valley” or with the more powerful poetry of the King James “the valley of the shadow of death.” That seems worth taking a pause. The right path has goodness, and serenity, but also contains darkness and death.
Nevertheless, the writer isn’t afraid. They mention again the help of the good shepherd. The shepherd has a rod for protection against human and animal threats. Likewise, the shepherd carries a staff to help the sheep through difficult passes.
The good host of Psalm 23
At verse 5 the imagery changes from God as a shepherd to God as a host. God has set up a table for the writer of the psalm. Now rather than God as a good shepherd leading sheep. God is a good host caring for guests.
Like the sheep in the care of the shepherd, it may be no surprise that the host does a good job. The host sets a good table, and cares well for the guest. The meal is a feast of abundance with cups that don’t run dry.
Similar to the paths of the sheep, the table set for the guest isn’t all goodness either. The writer of the psalm describes the table as “in the presence of [their] enemies.” So, the company at the host’s dinner isn’t all friendly.
As the psalm is coming to a close, the writer lays out their outlook on the future. They are certain that their whole life will be in this good house of God. Further, they say that “goodness and mercy will follow [them] all the days of [their] life.”
The word for “follow” here is worth looking at a little more closely. The word translated as “follow” has connotations not just in the sense of following up as in coming behind, but pursuing or chasing. The final verse gives the impression that the goodness and mercy of God are really determined in their pursuit of the writer.
That certainly adds to the assurance of the goodness of the shepherd, the host, and the life they provide, but a little more, too. The shepherd imagery starts the psalm with an image of the writer being lead along a good path. The final verse brings up being followed by goodness and mercy. All together, the writer is hemmed in.
Both in front and behind, the writer of the psalm feels the care and comfort of God. They are neither pulled along nor pushed forward. God is embracing the writer, and caring for them all along the paths of life. How does this care show up?
The with in the middle of Psalm 23
At the midpoint of Psalm 23, before God changes from a shepherd to a host, the writer makes a profound statement. They don’t have fear in the darkest valley because God is with them. The writer expresses the comfort they have knowing that God is present with them.
This is a profound theme throughout many biblical texts. You can find it in the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Christians would recognize it and affirm it in Jesus’ title as Immanuel, God with us. Similiarly in Jesus’ own promise at the end of the great commission in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Psalm 23 provides imagery and poetry to accompany and proclaim the promise of God’s presence. So, it isn’t hard to see why so many people have felt pulled to it. Reading it through, the psalm’s serenity is moving. As has already been said, popularity has its disadvantages too, though, and it can sometimes cause us to cling to some preconceived notions.
Pushing past the fame
Recall what we talked about earlier. How many people think of Psalm 23 when they think of funerals? Like me, how many hear the Coolio song, or some other (maybe more profound) reference to the psalm? How easy is it to think of other times you’ve heard the psalm, instead of hearing the psalm right now?
Can familiar words be heard differently? What happens when you try to leave behind past memories or associations and just listen? Maybe nothing. Probably nothing too profound, either. But you may not be as distracted by your past, and your thoughts and feelings about the psalm. Whether that past is the loss of a loved one or some piece of nostalgia, its voice may be quieter as you listen. Perhaps you will hear something new too. Something that speaks to you right now, or something that you’ve always noticed but never paused over. That is what happened with me for those references to “the darkest valley” and “the presence of my enemies.”
Dark valleys and dubious tables
This psalm is so beautiful. Really, it is, even if by current standards it isn’t very flashy. Nevertheless, confident serenity flows through Psalm 23. That serene beauty, moving as it is, can cover up the more negative aspects of the psalm. But those are important, too.
The darkness of the valley and the enemies present at the abundant table are in this psalm just as plainly as the still waters and the overflowing cup. Psalm 23 isn’t a poem of universal prosperity. It doesn’t shy from the presence of threat and danger. It is good that it doesn’t.
Without those more uncomfortable elements, the psalm would be just too sweet. Even if the negative element of the psalm doesn’t take center stage, it is good that it is there. It is fairly rare to find commentators or artists hesitating over or depicting the enemies at the table or the valley of the shadow of death (Coolio does, though, to great effect).
If the psalm didn’t include the darkness and enemies, it would be nothing more than a daydream. It would be all too easy to pass over the psalm as a happy little song that has never really tasted life. Instead, the psalm is an affirmation of life in the midst of life’s threats.
No light without the darkness
How would we know the calm, comfort of the green pastures and still waters, if it weren’t for the dark valleys? Likewise, what warmth and goodness could we feel from a joyful feast without the cold, antagonism of enemies to complement it? That probably sounds weird. There is something kind of funny about it.
If you are trying to have a happy dinner party, you probably don’t think to invite a guest who is going to have a bone to pick. Most likely, you’ll pick the most friendly, warm people you can think of. That is understandable, and you shouldn’t do anything differently. At least, not practically speaking. The wisdom of the psalm has different depth than practice. It relates to our experience.
Without knowing the feeling of conflict and discomfort with other people, how would you know what it is like to be peaceful and content with your companions? If you didn’t have any experience of the bad, could you appreciate the good? Without a little darkness, what would light be to you?
It’s counter-intuitive. It is more typical to think along “cut and dry” lines. Good is good. Bad is bad. We are used to welcoming the one and shunning the other.
How well does that work? Does it make us happy? Are our lives more full by attempting to get rid of that which we think is ugly, and trying to attract that which we think is beautiful?
What would it look like if, rather than grasping what we find to be good, and pushing away what we find to be bad, there was another way? Maybe this other way could look something more like what the writer of the psalm is describing. Going through life with a guiding presence. A sheep being lead to the good pastures and dark valleys alike. A guest being treated to an abundant feast, even in the presence of hostile company.
To walk this other way, we’d have to let go of some things. We would have to let go of our desire for control. Our preferences would need to be less important than our circumstances, especially when the two don’t align. More of our time would need to be spent letting things happen, rather than trying to make them happen.
You can find out what this looks like. The writer of Psalm 23 seems to be describing it. It is a glowing recommendation. Of course, you don’t need to do this. You can keep reaching for whatever seems best, pushing away what you don’t like, and continue trying to control things. That’s an option. But it isn’t the only one. If you want to try another path, sitting quietly with Psalm 23 wouldn’t be a bad first step.
Psalm 139 – Where is God?
"There is nowhere God is not." That sounds like an awkward phrase. I think it works better than the more straightforward "God is everywhere." There is a lack of intimacy to say it like that. A loss of intimacy would be a big loss for this psalm, too. The way the writer of the psalm describes their experience it sounds more like wherever you are, God is there. The writer asks rhetorically where they could go where God would not be present. The implied answer is nowhere.
Psalm 119 – A light on your way
Psalm 119 describes life as traveling a path. It is a pretty common metaphor. If you travel for any amount of time, you know the importance of having a good route in mind, so that you know where you are going. Whether that route takes the form of an itinerary, map, an experienced guide, or an actual road, it is helpful to have something or someone to help you navigate as you go. This psalm has a particular route prepared. Over and over in this psalm, the writer talks about walking in God's teaching, law, or instruction. For them, this teaching is the guide on the journey of life and a help for the turns life takes along the way.
Psalm 19 – Heaven and Earth Speak
Several years ago, I watched the sunrise over the hills of Kentucky. Cows lowed repeatedly and loudly in the minutes just before the sun's light peeked over the horizon. I was visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived and worked. It was at the end of a five-day silent retreat. My bags sat in the trunk of the car I had rented for the short drive between the airport and the abbey. Spending that much time in silence, then watching the sun come up was a funny experience.
Psalm 1 Commentary – Like a tree
One way of reading this psalm is pretty judgmental. Anything that mentions "sinners" and "righteousness" flirts with a judgmental mentality. Given how quickly we tend to judge others, reading this text as permission to think in "black and white" terms about people's lives would be easy. I'll admit that my mind went there right away. Some people are pretty happy to read the psalm that way. It had me pretty turned off by the text to begin with. Parts of it sound like the worst kind of religious sentiment. It feels both unhealthy and unhelpful to harbor and cultivate such judgmental thought.
Psalm 46 – Be Still
"Be still and know that I am God." Without a doubt, this is the verse that most people remember from Psalm 46. Most likely, more people can quote this verse than know it is from Psalm 46. The verse is beautiful. It deserves fame. Continuing to wrestle with it and live with the verse is still more beautiful. The words, though simple, don’t give up meaning easily. What does it mean to “Be still and know that [God is] God?”