The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
God with us
Psalm 23 is many people’s favourite passage of scripture. It gives great comfort at times of crisis, just like we’re in now. But it also speaks of God’s care in our ‘normal’ everyday living. There’s an even amount of light and shade here. Thankfulness during the good times – but recognition of God’s care and protection in the bad.
Written as a song by David, whilst on the run from Saul, David thinks back to his youth, to thoughts and actions that he intimately understood. He paints a vivid picture in words as he parallels his trust in God as to a sheep with its shepherd.
And God is literally in the middle of it all. In Hebrew there are the same number of words before the ‘thou’ in verse 4, as there are after. God is right in there with us, at the centre. Verse 4 is also where we switch from talking about God, to talking to God. From ‘he’ – to ‘thou’ & ‘thy’, in the King James Version. From God be in my head, to God be in our hearts.
The Song of our Syrian Guest
Amongst the books handed down to me from my Grandfather is one called ‘The Song of our Syrian Guest’. It’s a commentary on Psalm 23.
It was first published in 1904 – and this lovely little book tells of a meeting with Faduel Moghabghab. Faduel was a Syrian shepherd – and he explains to his Western hosts some of the shepherding nuances that we overlook in the psalm. And we miss some precious meaning when we do.
A shepherd’s psalm
First, he explains that the psalm is not about a shepherd in the first half and a banquet in the second. It’s a shepherd psalm throughout. All that follows from ‘the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’ is an explanation of that thought.
We often think of ‘he leadeth me beside the still waters’ as taking rest beside quietly flowing streams. But streams are few and far between in shepherd country. You can’t rely on them. Those ‘still waters’ are wells and cisterns, where the shepherd has to take time and effort drawing-up water for a flock of thirsty sheep to drink.
And in shepherd country, not all the land is open to everyone. There are private fields for gardens and vineyards. If a sheep strays and is found there, then the sheep is forfeit to the owner of the land. So, ‘restoreth my soul’ means the sheep being brought back from forbidden places.
It’s often hard to choose the right path for the sheep. One path can lead to a cliff – or another to a dead-end. The shepherd always goes ahead, looking for the best route, proud of his good name as a shepherd.
Often those paths take you through deadly places. ‘The valley of the shadow of death’ is named for what it is. Just as ‘the valley of robbers’ might be. And ‘thy rod and thy staff’ are what shepherds carry. One is for defence and the other for guidance and support.
Bravery and devotion
And here’s where we often think the psalm switches to different imagery. But Faduel explains there is no higher task for the shepherd than to find a good and safe feeding place for the sheep. He needs to look out for poisonous plants and snake-holes. He needs to watch for signs of jackals and wolves – and close their dens with stones or slay them if he has to. The shepherd shows both bravery and devotion to prepare such a place.
So, this is the true picture of the extent of God’s care of us in the world – rather than one of just inviting us to a banquet.
Care for the worn and weary
We come towards the end of the day now. At the entrance to the sheepfold the shepherd stands, acting as the doorway. He holds back the sheep with his rod while he inspects them one-by-one as they go into the fold. He anoints the scratches and bruises with cedar-tar. The worn and exhausted have their face and head bathed in olive oil. They are revived by drinking water from a full cup. God cares for both the wounded and the worn and weary.
The shepherd lies across the entrance to the fold and looks up at the night sky. He thinks ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’ – as they have throughout the day now ended.
As he gazes at the stars that make his ceiling for the night, ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ becomes his final thought, before sleep takes him. The end of his song – the sheep safe in the shepherd’s fold.
‘The Song of our Syrian Guest’ was by Ian Banks and based on Psalm 23, which is the psalm for Sunday 3rd May 2020. It’s for virtual consumption during the Covid-19 lockdown, produced in association with St Zooms! For next weeks homily on John 14, by Cath Hilton, please follow this link and for Ian’s next message, on the Ascension, please press here.
The picture is called the ‘Mountains of Shenandoah’ and is shown with grateful thanks to the artist, Alyse Radenovic. Please take a look at her website which contains some truly wonderful work.
- The Song of our Syrian Guest – W. A. Knight;
- To hear Psalm 23 in Hebrew please follow this link
- And please take a look at this YouTube clip of Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi explaining Psalm 23.
Thank you Ian for this reflection of Psalm 23. I have not previously considered this interpretation and it was informative and thoughtful. It will allow me to look at it in a different way next time we say it, or sing it. I did also find myself counting the number of words before and after thou.
Thanks David – yes, it’s certainly not the usual way of looking at the second half of the psalm. Or the comment about the ‘still’ waters. Which is why I thought it was worth sharing. And,yes, I imagine a few have counted the words! I did.