I’ve been reading about Hebrew poetry lately and I’ve realized that I may have been reading Psalm 23 all wrong.
Over-familiarity is our worst friend when we’re trying to develop a deep understanding of a text. I’ve heard the words “The Lord is my shepherd” and everything that comes after so many times that I’ve come to take it for granted. It becomes an absent-minded recitation. While I think all of us who grew up in the church have a grasp for the basic ethos of the poem, I’m discovering that Hebrew poetry demands that the reader slow down to really unpack the parallel images and words that characterize it.
I’ll assume you’ve read or heard or sung this poem before. Shepherd, Green Pastures, Quiet Waters. This part makes me feel nice. Although the line “I shall not want” feels more like a wish than an assertion. When I see my friends getting promoted or engaged, I definitely do want. I could say a lot about how profoundly rebellious this statement is against an ambitious and consumeristic culture, but that’s not my main point.
The tranquil tapestry of this mellow meadow ends with this.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
A gap in the formatting of the text! Now we’re going to talk about a new idea. If this were a film, we might put a scene transition here. The tone is still optimistic but we’re no longer in that prior pastoral paradise.
But were we ever?
The way that the text is usually formatted suggests a shift that I’m not sure is meant to be there. Verse 3 and Verse 4 both use language of journeying. Being lead down the path and walking through the valley. Verses 1 and 2 show us images of stillness. Verses 3 and 4 get us moving. Unless the editors of the text are using the gap between the verses to symbolize a valley between hills, I think this break can be misleading.
Picture this: our scene opens on a young lamb, grazing on grass and sipping from a stream. We then see the lamb approached by a strong but gentle shepherd who signals to the lamb with his staff that it’s time to get moving. The lamb hops up and begins following the shepherd. As they go, they walk. They don’t run. They don’t hide. They walk.
Zoom out and we see that the two are, in fact, in a dark valley. Clouds thunder overhead and predators growl in the distance. Abandoned arrows, slash marks from swords, and spots of blood speak of some battle that was fought here recently. Warriors may still be crouching around the next bend. And there they walk, the sheep and the shepherd. Stopping for a break and a snack every now and then.
The green fields with quiet waters and the valley of the shadow of death aren’t two places. They are one. And Verses 5 and 6 will confirm this for us. How does the poem begin? Fields to graze in, water to drink, rest for the soul. Food, drink, rest. How does it end? A table in front of my enemies, an overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. Food, drink, rest – not in some idyllic ethereal otherworld, but in the very presence of enemies and threats. There are always the enemies, the shadow of death, but also the shepherd offers provision and comfort.
What’s more, we’ve zoomed out even further. We began in the sheep’s little world: the grass, the water, the shepherd. We zoomed out to see what the shepherd is protecting the sheep from: the valley. Now we are in “The house of the Lord, forever.” We end in the eternal transcendent House (surely this encompasses all creation) and the enemies and valleys are left sandwiched – surrounded – between the immediate local provision of the shepherd and the eternal promises of the future.
I’m sure there are layers of this poem that I’m still missing. The Israelites were masters of poetry so I’m sure that there are layers that shine out much better in the original language. But this poem is dense even in English. It’s packed. The images are tied together brilliantly and even the subtle implications of a verb like “walk” are carefully selected to tell us something about the beautiful relationship that God has to his creation, and the relationship between his providence and our challenges.
I think we miss this when we treat the Psalms first as theology and as poetry second. When we slow down and read them as poetry, their theology becomes much more profound.