The Book of Psalms is a book of poetry, which was used as the “prayer” of “service” book in the ancient Israelite Temple. Composed of 150 poems, Rev. Eugene Peterson writes that, they form are a “prayer book that gives us a language adequate for responding to the God who speaks to us.” They can teach us how to pray. Psalm 23 is a prayer of orientation, singing of trust and confidence in Yahweh the LORD. As OT Scholar Patrick Miller writes, “One does not need to have much familiarity with the life or work of a shepherd to feel the power of the imagery of this psalm. It speaks to deep human need, even for those whose personal experience has no point of contact with the images that are presented.”
The psalmist presents God with two metaphorical images: First as a shepherd in verses 1 to 4. A positive image reinforcing the presentations of God as a rock, refuge, supporting arms who can be trusted and counted upon. Knowing God as shepherd is implied to lead to a state of not having want, or lacking. This shepherd punctuates the entire breadth of the Bible, in particular in Isaiah 40, Ezekiel 34 and our gospel reading of John 10 which identifies Jesus as the good shepherd, the living God in whom we can put our trust.
The second image is one of host in verses 5 to 6, who generously and richly provides for the one singing the psalm prayer. This amazing God can provide a welcoming, nourishing table even in the midst of the desert – or the total darkness – images of utter lack and total need.
In between the two images is the gospel good news flash experience of Yahweh’s power and nature. Yahweh makes a way where there was seemingly no way, transforms the darkness into light, death into life. The LORD’s presence makes all things new, giving a new song to sing to the psalmist. Origen, the first great Christian theologian in 3rd century Egypt wrote of the psalm “To walk in the midst of the shadow of death is not the same as to sit in the shadow of death; one who sits in the shadow of death is firmly fixed in that shadow and strengthened in evil. On account of this, he is in darkness and lacks mercy so that the light may rise for him. He who does not sit, but who passes or walks through the midst of the shadow of death, not standing and hurrying across, does not walk alone because the Lord goes through with him.”
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
- What strikes or shimmers for you in this passage?
- Read it again. What phrase or image most speaks to you today?
- When have you heard this psalm before?
- What has it meant to you before?
- How does it utter a good news word to you in regards to whatever you’re living today as you may struggle to put your trust in God as a shepherd guide or as one who invites you to his table?