TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

24 August 2016

The Lord’s my shepherd.

Most everybody’s favorite psalm.

Adonái ro’i (Latin, Dominus pascit me), “the LORD’s my shepherd,” was written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC. In the Hebrew bible it’s the 23rd psalm. (In the Septuagint and Vulgate it’s the 22nd.)

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 LORD. 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 LORD for 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 LORD.
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 LORD for 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 KJV it’s “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” Ps 23.6 KJV In the end, we get to be with God forever. It’s meant to comfort those who’ve suffered a loss.

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 BC, and how the good shepherd, the LORD, behaves. Sheep-herders didn’t necessarily act this way towards their sheep.

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.

So:

  • “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 17.34-35 but 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. Jn 10.11 There are those Christians who point out he’s also behaving this way because of his name Ps 23.3 —he has a reputation to uphold. And that’s true, but like Jesus indicated, love is a far greater motivation to God than reputation.

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” Ps 23.4 KJV It’s not warranted from the original text. The Septuagint inserted the idea of death into this gey chalmawét/“valley of deep shadow,” turning it into en méso skiás thanátu/“in the middle of death’s shadow.” Ain’t no death in this verse in the Hebrew.

As for “dwell in the house of the LORD for ever,” Ps 23.6 KJV while there is such a thing as eternal life, Jn 14.2-3 it’s also not a proper translation. David only wrote orékh yamím/“length of days,” meaning a long time. Not eternally. Especially not when we’re talking about literal sheep. This refers to our mortal lives. The house of the LORD is parallel to “love and goodness”—the qualities which can make anyplace we live into the LORD’s house. But people prefer to quote the inaccurate KJV, ’cause we prefer the eternal-life idea.

The people of God’s pasture.

As I said, Jesus called himself the good shepherd, Jn 10.11 so we insert ideas of Jesus into Psalm 23. And likely Jesus was thinking of this psalm when he compared himself with a shepherd. We followers certainly got that idea. So when we think of the LORD as our shepherd, we think of Jesus. When we think of the table spread out for us, we think of the celebration in God’s kingdom once Jesus takes his throne. 1Pe 5.4

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 LORD may be our shepherd… but we’re gonna have a rotten time of it when we won’t listen to the shepherd’s voice Jn 10.2-5 and go our own way.

The reason David could sing “I am never deprived” Ps 23.1 is because he acknowledged God as his shepherd. And, for the most part, followed him. We gotta do likewise. We need to follow the LORD’s right paths, instead of straying into danger. We have to submit to the shepherd’s care. Once we submit, that’s why “love and goodness pursue me instead”—we submit, seek God’s kingdom first, and God takes care of the rest. Mt 6.33