We know it so well. It’s easy to think we might glean nothing more than a recognition of comfort when we reread the 23rd Psalm. If that’s all that occurred, that would probably be good enough. I believe we ought to aim slightly higher than “good enough” when encountering scripture; even scripture we know by heart.
What more is there to be learned from these words?
The 23rd Psalm is a visual psalm. It asks us, the reader, to paint multiple pictures in our mind. There are images of shepherds, grassy meadows, restful waters, proper paths, set tables, and full cups. Each one of us has different images of these phrases we hold in common. Your grass may be better kept than mine. My table, laid in the presence of my enemies may have chicken and ham. Yours may be full of vegetables from your garden. My sheep are probably fatter, dirtier, and a bit more Irish than yours. Despite holding this passage in common, as shared as any verse of scripture is in the popular culture, and one that unites Christians of all traditions; it comes out differently. Externally it says one thing. Internally, when we read or pray these words, they become personal and speak to our lives. I am learning that while this appears to be an outward looking Psalm (in the midst of an outward looking society, obsessed with appearance, gossip, newness, location, and the like); the Psalm is really calling us to look inward. Prayer begins an inward journey toward a conversation with God, stripped bare of the superficial, outward needs that inhibit our ability to hear and respond to God.
Unless we look inward, we don’t recognize our incompleteness. We don’t see what we’re missing by looking at the lives of others. Psalm 23 is about living in uncertain helplessness. We were born helpless, dependent on others for every aspect of life. Psalm 23 reminds us, despite whatever outward sense of prowess we’ve honed; our interior lives are always weak and incomplete. Because we have needs we are fearful, we go through grief, anger, and even hope. A creature without needs has no emotions. Our needs make us human. Psalm 23 is a story about how our incomplete lives are completed and our needs are met by a God who meets us where we are.
The 23rd Psalm reminds me that life is fragile. Sheep do not live long lives. The outdoors is a hard place. They face threats from predators, disease, and some will eventually join the food chain. Shepherds live the same life as sheep. They stay with them night and day, protecting their flock (a financial investment) from those same predators, living in the elements, and hoping to make enough money to feed their families. Today, as in Biblical times, some shepherds might die protecting their sheep.
You have to be open to the world, good and bad, when dealing with shepherds and sheep. Evil and tragic events beyond your control are a reality. Uncertainty, there’s that word again, is a reality. Life is uncertain, death is not. Psalm 23 puts us in the middle of this fragile balance. The Psalmist reminds us that life is fragile. What do we do now?
We embrace the vulnerability. We step up to the fragility and say “yes”. The more vulnerable we become the greater our ability to trust God. If you’re vulnerable, broke, strung out, homeless, and hungry; you’re going to be trusting of the people offering you a sandwich and soup in a shelter. On a cosmic scale, we’re that vulnerable. We have no one to trust but God.
The 23rd Psalm is a promise from God. God has made a promise to be good to us. God’s promise is kept through our relationships with other people. God works in tangible ways through our friends and family. There is no mystery here. I call it common sense. God’s promises are embodied in community care, phone calls, hugs, cards, and countless other ways. In moments of fear, tragedy, and loss we have the opportunity to believe that promise, make it real, take it on face value, or reject it outright.
If we reject the promise of God’s goodness outright, I’m not sure it means we’re rejecting God. I think it’s a rejection of the idea that goodness itself is too much to bear, whether it’s from God or another human being. When you’re in a dark place, goodness pushes some people to retreat inward. Instead of looking for God or others to help complete their needs, they live for their own fear, anger, and revenge. When you lose that level of trust with the world around you, your humanity is all but gone.
The human soul can petrify. Looking out over the sandy beaches and crystalline waters of the ocean, we can neglect the incomplete paths that make up our basic humanity. Whether from fear, when we guard against pain, or wade alone through tragedy; the indispensable tenderness of the human soul awaits nourishment by still waters and green pastures on this side of death’s dark valley. This is God’s promise. Look inward, read these words, trust like you’ve never trusted before, and be who God created you to be.