| Rev. Merv Lanctot
St. Andrews on the Red St. Matthews
The appointed Psalm for Easter 4 is the well known 23rd Psalm. Many of us memorized it from childhood. Maybe more recently, Psalm 23 is the chosen reading at numerous funerals and memorial services. Even movie and TV scenes that want to emphasize the dramatic affect of mourners huddled around a grave site use the 23rd Psalm. Emphasizing 23:4 (yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death). Over the years the use of the Psalm has lead many to associate this psalm of trust with death and mourning.
However, when we go to the Biblical Commentaries we see that Psalm 23 is a “song of trust,” as are Psalms 4, 11, 27, 16, 62, and 131. Scholars go on to say that Songs of trust have two things in common: a perceived calamity of some kind and trust that the calamity or disaster shall pass and all will be well. In fact, as scholars often note, in these songs of trust it is the very crisis that instigates the psalmist to cry out in trust; and not, as one might expect, in despondency or dejection. For example, in Psalm 27, trust comes even when standing in the midst of flesh-devouring evildoers and with armies encamped all around (27:1-3).
So what crisis was Psalm 23 addressing? And was that crisis one that centred on death, as is so often the case when the psalm is shared during our funeral and memorial services?
As we dig deeper into the Psalms, it seems that Psalm 23 is to remind us of the relationship between God and God’s people. The psalm reminds readers about the beauties of living life in the here and now even in the midst of darkness that accompanies day-to-day life. I think it is so appropriate today, as we live in a Covid-19 environment. Living a life of Trust!
The psalm begins with a faithful and hopeful claim, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As scholars often note, the Hebrew verb haser, translated in the NRSV as “want,” is the same verb found in Deuteronomy 2:7, “Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows you are going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing” .
So the passage in the Psalms seems to be related to the forty years of wandering following the Exodus. God took care of the people then as they wandered through the desert. And God will take care of us today. Those 40 years may not have been the easiest. As walking through a time of wilderness never is! But they also saw God’s provision.
They saw manna fall from heaven, the birth of a new generation, and eventual deliverance into the Promised Land. God cared for the wandering people — and they lacked nothing. The benefits of the relationship are clear: have faith in the God who shepherds you through the wilderness.
God will never leave you or forsake you but be with you always. It is shown over and over that God will not let you lack what you need. This God will lead you to the Promised Land, providing you green pastures (food), still waters (drink), and a straight path (protection).
The shepherd metaphor continues, “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” (Psalm 23:4). Though the King James translation: the “valley of the shadow of death” is most famous, however, the more appropriate translation from the original Hebrew is likely something more akin to “darkest valley” (NRSV) or “deepest darkness”
Recent scholars have shifted the focus away from the mention of death in The Psalm and instead focus on a shepherd sustaining the life of the flock. I have always been comforted by the picture of the Jesus as shepherd; the protector! The one who looks out for us. The Lord is my shepherd, guiding us through dark experiences, keeping us safe. Despite how perplexing it might be while we stumble our way through the darkness, hope and trust are appropriate responses; they keep us moving toward life. As mentioned above: a perceived calamity of some kind (Covid -19) and we trust that the calamity or disaster shall pass and all will be well.
The final two verses of the psalm move us to the second metaphor: God is a gracious host who prepares a banquet table for the psalmist (see Psalm 92:11). This table is spread “in the presence of my enemies,” who seem to watch from the sidelines as God anoints the head of the psalmist and we read: goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word translated in the NRSV as “follow” is also found in a number of verses scattered throughout the Bible that deal with enemies, but always as “pursue”.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Interesting thought! God pursuing us with His goodness and mercy; not just following but in a determined desire to catch us and be with us.
“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long”; here the “house of the Lord” refers to the Temple (see Psalm 27:4). Again, the psalm emphasizes life in the here-and-now, and the ways in which life in the here-and-now can be joyous and banquet-filled, especially if one trusts in guidance and protection of the shepherd and the benevolent provider of the banquet. How we long for the return to worship services in St. Andrews and St Matthews. The House of the Lord my whole life long!
Psalm 23 reminds readers that God sustains, provides, and cares for his flock not once but time and time again — fleeing from Egypt, returning from Exile, and as we walk through darkness, as we walk through these trying times. Psalm 23 reminds readers that goodness and mercy of God pursues us. Moreover, in this Easter season, Psalm 23 serves as a reminder to live — in the face of danger and misfortune, even in the shadows of darkness that might surround us, and to know that in living we will be sustained. In these songs of trust it is the very crisis that instigates us to cry out in trust! The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want!
Rev. Merv Lanctot
(Biblical commentary adapted from an article by Kelly Murphy, Luther seminary )
Faith Grows in the Soil of Hope!