Most everybody’s favorite psalm.
Adonái ro’i (Latin, Dominus pascit me), “the L
Hebrew poetry doesn’t rhyme. But really, all it takes to make a rhyming translation is a little effort. So I did. Went with anapestic septameter. (Poetry nerds know what that means.)
Psalm 23 KWL
- 0 David’s psalm.
- 1 I am never deprived, for my shepherd’s the L
ORD. 2 In his pastures of grass do I rest.
- I am guided by him to the waters so calm. 3 He provides me my life. I am blessed.
- I am led down the rightest of paths by his name. 4 In the valley’s dark shade, I may veer;
- but because you are with me, I won’t be afraid. In your stick and your staff, I take cheer.
- 5 You arrange me a table in face of my foes. You rub fat on the wool of my head.
- You have made my cup overflow. 6 All my life’s days, love and goodness pursue me instead.
- I will always return to the house of the L
ORDfor the length of my days. I’m well-led.
Now, the down side to doing this is the parallelism in these verses becomes a little less obvious. And that’s not unimportant. So in order to make the parallels more obvious, I’ll format it thisaway. (And drop the text I had to pad it with to keep it in meter; and put the contractions back in.)
Psalm 23.1-6 KWL
- 1 I’m never deprived; my shepherd’s the L
- 2 In pastures of grass do I rest.
- I’m guided by him to the waters so calm.
- 3 He provides me my life.
- I’m led down the rightest of paths by his name.
- 4 In the valley’s dark shade, I may veer;
- but because you’re with me, I won’t be afraid.
- In your stick and your staff, I take cheer.
- 5 You arrange me a table in face of my foes.
- You rub fat on my head. You make my cup overflow.
- 6 All my life’s days, love and goodness pursue me.
- I return to the house of the L
ORDfor the length of my days.
Anyway. Christians tend to use Psalm 23 to comfort one another. We recite it at funerals, in hospitals, and at various mournful situations. It’s used so often at sad times, you gotta wonder whether there’s a missing line in it about the shepherd burying one of his sheep. Or eating it.
But mainly it’s used this way because of its last line. In the
David, the shepherd.
Ever notice how we humans have the bad habit of trying to project our attitudes, motives, intentions, and opinions upon God? As if he thinks like us. If we’re careful, we watch out for this sort of thing, lest we misinterpret God by making him sound a little too much like ourselves. And if we’re not careful, that’s all we preach: Our own beliefs.
Well, here King David took the job he had as a boy—tending his family’s sheep—and imagines the Almighty as a shepherd like he was.
So why wasn’t David guilty of the very same projection as a self-centered Christian?
Because Psalm 23 is actually a contrast between how sheep-herders behaved in the 10th century
Back in the days before fences—and in parts of the world where they don’t do fences—someone responsible has to watch the sheep, to make sure they don’t get themselves in trouble. ’Cause sheep aren’t smart animals. But emergencies aren’t all that common, and problems aren’t either. So sheep-herding is really a long, boring job. You find somewhere to sit and watch the sheep, watch out for the sheep, and try not to fall asleep on the job. Sheep-herders weren’t always successful at this—which is how they wound up with the reputation for being lazy.
Shepherds didn’t always own the sheep they watched. Often they were one of the least-useful person in the household: If you can’t cook, clean, build, dig, or plow, you can probably still tend sheep, so off you go. The sheep-herders would be slaves, employees, the owner’s children (as David was), or the owner’s elderly relatives (as Moses was). It was considered a cushy job, and sheep-herders would try to keep it cushy. They’d do the minimum job necessary.
- “Never deprived”: The sheep were often deprived.
- “Pastures of grass”: Shepherds wouldn’t always go out of their way to find the greenest fields. If it’s close enough and grassy enough, there ya go.
- “Waters so calm”: Shepherds likewise wouldn’t try to find calm water, the easist stuff for sheep to drink from. Whatever water was closest, there they went.
- “Provides my life”: David might fight off wild animals,
1Sa 17.34-35but few other shepherds were willing to take such risks for the sheep’s lives.
- “Led down the rightest of paths”: Hey, whatever path worked.
- “Arrange me a table”: Arrange stuff for the sheep? What shepherd would?
- “Rub fat on my head”: This shepherds would do. It kept the wool shiny and took care of wounds. But only when they saw need; not as a regular thing.
- “Make my cup overflow”: Fill it, maybe. To overflowing?—too much effort.
God, in comparison, does everything right. Largely because he cares about his sheep. They’re not just his duty. They’re not just a job. He loves his sheep; as Jesus later taught, he’d sacrifice his life for the sheep.
The good shepherd’s stick and staff, in which David took comfort, were his tools. The stick was, as it says, a stick. Used for all the thing you’d use a stick for: Nudging sheep and smiting predators. The staff was the walking stick everybody carried in those days where paved roads were hard to find and rocks were (and are) everywhere. But sheep-herders could always use their staff as a longer stick. These weapons defended the sheep from enemies, and the good shepherd is so good at that, only “love and goodness”—not wolves, bears, lions, or rustlers—“pursue me.” However long the sheep’s life might last.
Some of the more impressive language in Psalm 23 includes “the valley of the shadow of death”
As for “dwell in the house of the L
The people of God’s pasture.
As I said, Jesus called himself the good shepherd,
But sheep, though stubborn, aren’t all that difficult to herd and lead. Humans are way more stubborn, and way more likely to go our own way. So the L
The reason David could sing “I am never deprived”