By Derek Weber
Week 4 – Psalm 23
March 22, 2020
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me 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.
Week 4: In Right Paths
Of all the songs in the hymn book of the people of God, the 23rd Psalm is probably the most beloved. It is almost impossible to read these six verses without hearing a favorite version sung. And there are many hymns and songs that take the central themes of the psalm and wrap them in beautiful music. We could argue for a long time about why this brief psalm has so captured the hearts of so many. But at the heart of this hymn is an invitation to trust in the one who provides care, the one who gathers in, the one who heals and comforts and loves, the one who puts our feet on the right path. And that’s our prayer this Lenten season: “Guide my feet, while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain!”
Suggested Spiritual: “Guide My Feet”
Perhaps the most familiar six verses of the whole Bible are found in Psalm 23. Variously translated, written into songs of a variety of genres, parodied in more ways than even Google can catalog, the 23rd Psalm holds a place in the canon of scripture that is unparalleled. And yet, do we listen to it? Do we examine its depths, live into its promises? Or do we simply slip into it like a warm bath, soothing and comforting, but hidden beneath the frothy bubbles of the comfort we seek?
Comfort is important. So is being soothed when we ache and when we are unsettled. We long for those arms to wrap around us and protect us, to shelter us, to love us when it seems no one else will. But David was hoping for more, wanting more than simply balm to soothe our troubled souls. Psalm 23 is about equipping, about building up so that we can walk, so we can live. Not just exist, but to live. The shepherd doesn’t just protect us, doesn’t just feed us, but makes us alive. “He restores my soul.” A soul, living being, life, self, desire, passion, appetite, emotion – that’s the definition of the Hebrew word that is there: nephesh. It’s not simply a breathing being, it’s not simply an entity that is content, upright, taking in nourishment. But one that is enjoying the meal. One that is alive to the greenness of the grass and depth of the still water teeming with life itself. He makes me alive again. Again, like I was created to be. Like I have been in moments, fleeting experiences that make my heart pound and my eyes tear up and the laughter burst from my lips. I want that again. I want to walk in the right paths. Not the paths of self-destruction, self-satisfaction, self-centered preference driven gluttony; but your paths. Because only those paths will keep me alive when the darkness comes, when death surrounds, when despair grips so tightly hope slips from our fingers. Guide my feet while I run this race / guide my feet while I run this race / guide my feet while I run this race / for I don’t want to run this race in vain. Restore my soul.
And then, typical of attention deficit David, we leap from pastures to dining rooms. Without a warning or commercial break, we find ourselves ushered into a luxurious ballroom, convention center, like we’ve stumbled into a wedding reception we aren’t sure we’re invited to. The table is groaning under the weight of all of our favorites, so we lunge to our seat and dig in before we notice that the guest list includes many we would have left off. Those we hoped to avoid. But the waiter keeps filling our cup, we thought to grab and go, but we’re stuck. We’re there, with them. Them. And we’re blessed by it.
I’ve often wondered what David had in mind with that “in the presence of my enemies” line. Probably thought about thumbing his nose at them, behind the velvet rope, kept at bay by the same servers who keep the cup overflowing. He probably thought it was an in your face kind of taunt, a bit of I’ll show them that they don’t know who they’re messing with. I wonder if that’s what he thought as he wrote it with a cruel grin on his face, not realizing that the inspiration for that verse was taking him farther than he intended to go. Than he hoped to go. Than he wanted to go.
Search my heart while I run this race / Search my heart while I run this race / Search my heart while I run this race / for I don’t want to run this race in vain!
Those right paths, those tables in the presence, they’re not so frothy and bubbly when you think about it. Not so comforting, not so warm bath-like. The Lord as shepherd isn’t the walk in the park we might have imagined. It has an edge, a demand hidden inside. He gives us a hint. Gives himself one too, I suspect. In the word choice at the end of the psalm. Our translators hid it from us, uncertain how we would respond to it, perhaps, afraid we would be confused by the real message. We make it a passive, because comfort and ease sounds passive to us. But there’s nothing passive about the job of a shepherd. That’s why he’s got a rod and a staff. The staff was the crook, used to keep sheep on the path, hooking the end around the neck of the wandering sheep and lifting them bodily back into a new, safer direction. The rod was a weapon, a ninja bo staff or bokken, used to fight off the enemies that would make a meal of the poor unsuspecting and defenseless sheep. The shepherd’s life was at risk all the time. Not a very passive profession. So why a passive ending. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. Like a puppy, a lost lamb, ready for me to turn and take it when I wanted it, and to leave it when it is inconvenient for me, but I’m in charge. It follows me. I’ll acknowledge it when there’s time. When I’m in the mood. When nothing better comes my way. Surely it’ll be there. Waiting. For me.
Except it isn’t waiting. The verb is an active verb. A better translation would be surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me, shall chase after me, all the days of my life. That’s what I want. Isn’t it? A love that will not let me go. That will chase after me, even when I try to run. Even when I think I’m not worth chasing. Even when I don’t know what I want.
Some may struggle with the opening verse. I shall not want. Doesn’t that say we shouldn’t want? Anything? That wanting is bad? Or anti-faith somehow? We are made to want. It is a part of who we are. Part of the human condition. A life of faith doesn’t remove the wanting; in some ways it drives it. We need to long for the Kingdom, to want justice, to work for peace. And to not settle for anything less. We need to want to be alive and to rid ourselves of anything that makes us less than all God created us to be. And want to stop letting anyone tell us we are less than we are in God.
What David meant was that when he stopped to think about it, he had everything he needed to be alive. Maybe what should have said The Lord is my Shepherd, I’m going to stop whining when I don’t get my way! Or better, not my will, but thine be done.
Hold my hand while I run this race / Hold my hand while I run this race / Hold my hand while I run this race / for I don’t want to run this race in vain!