I’m reading a book by a Jewish historian who doesn’t believe God exists. He says that humanity today is striving for 3 things: immortality, perpetual happiness, and divinity.
As I look around the world through our instantaneous communications today, I think he has it about right. We want to become immortal: so we buy anti-ageing creams, have cosmetic surgery, and search for the gene that will prevent us getting old. We want perpetual happiness: so we’ll try anything that distracts us, whether its a new smartphone, the latest computer game, or illegal drugs. And we want to upgrade our humanity and become gods: so we tinker with our DNA to make us into super-humans with designer babies.
And while we are doing all this wishful thinking, we are also make plans that would bring about the end of humanity with a nuclear war. And we allow millions of our fellow humans to suffer war and famine, while we exhaust the earth of its resources for the sake of profit.
Into the midst of this human confusion comes a biblical psalm with this shocking announcement: The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.
To Christians down through the ages these words have marked out a different kind of life from the crowd. They are among the most remembered bits of the bible, especially in the darkest moments in life. It seems to be less so here in Australia, but in the UK families would almost always think of having the 23rd psalm either read or sung for a family funeral, even if they weren’t church people. Probably the best known phrase in the psalm is about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and not being alone or fearful in it.
But the psalm is also about an astonishingly different take on life. That difference is about the existence of a personal God with such infinite regard for his own people that he is with them personally, in the highs as well as the lows of life.
The psalm writer begins with imagining that we are sheep and God is our shepherd. One thing I learned as a school chaplain was that children don’t understand metaphors. They take them literally. To say God is like a shepherd means he is a shepherd, which confuses a child.
I think I’ve told you before about the church my family attended when I was a child. It had a life-size statue of Jesus above the altar as a shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. As I day-dreamed my way through what seemed to me like long and boring church services, while I don’t remember my exact thought patterns, I think I had trouble connecting the statue with the one to whom I was taught to say my prayers at night.
Now just imagine city children today who have never seen a real live sheep, let alone any idea where lamb and wool come from. So I began researching on the internet to see if anyone had written an modern interpretation of the 23rd psalm. Here is one called a Japanese version:
The Lord is my pace setter, I shall not rush.
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind, and his guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for his presence is here.
His timelessness, His all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity, by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows; surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours.
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord, and dwell in His house forever.
The intentions are good in this interpretation: I would guess it is called 'Japanese' because of the hint of Buddhism. I can just picture a devotee sitting cross-legged in peaceful pose. However, I want to take a closer look at the original….
It is a psalm of trust. Usually psalms of trust arise out of a crisis or a disaster of some kind. In a psalm of trust the writer is in crisis and cries out, not in despair, but in trust that God will hear and answer. Such a psalm gives assurance that the crisis will pass and all will be well.
But in psalm 23 there is no apparent crisis that was afflicting the writer. Instead he chose to write about the relationship of God with God’s people. It is not a psalm about death as is commonly thought. It reminds us of how great it is to live in the here and now, knowing that God is with us.
The psalm begins, in our pew bible version: ‘You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.’ The authorised version we learned as children said: ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.’ Both ways of putting it, about God meeting both my needs and my wants, suggest a kind of total provision coming from God. But there is a stumbling block, for it also suggests that I could put my feet up and expect a cushy life for the rest of my days.
And we know that in reality this can’t be true. So the writer must have something else in mind. In the remainder of the psalm we discover his understanding of trust, not that God will give him a cushy life, but that God will accompany him in the highs and lows of all that comes his way. If I go anywhere, he says, there God is.
At once the text takes us into a beautiful place of green pastures and still waters. The shepherd knows how to bring his flock to life by leading it to places of rich nourishment. In that way he leads the sheep onward. The life of the flock lies in a constantly renewed and unceasing movement forward to the next place of nourishment. So there will be dry periods when nourishment is slim; but there is always a good place yet to come. Life with the shepherd is full of hope.
That is really important for sheep. As I watched them on the grassy moors in Devon and in Cumbria where I lived, I could see how aimless sheep are, just moving from one blade of grass to another, no plan, no map, no idea where they might wind up, just existing in order to keep their bellies full. They just follow their desires.
It is a sorry state for humans when we are like that. It really describes the perfect life of being a consumer, as we flit from one sale to the next, doing what’s expected of us to keep the economy rolling along. So we benefit infinitely from have a lead, someone who gives us purpose and meaning to all our searching and striving.
Then suddenly in the psalm two significant dangers are raised. However, the shepherd does not remove the dangers that lie ahead. Instead he enables us to pass through them safely.
First there is the dark valley, where death does not seem far off. The shepherd is there, but in the dark. The shepherd carried two tools of his trade, a rod and a staff. One was a club to defend against wild animals and the other a long pole to guide and control the sheep. That’s the one we usually think of with the curved end. In the dark valley, even though we can’t see him, we may hear his staff tapping on the ground beside us. We may be fearful, yes, not knowing what is coming, but also there will be a tiny seed of knowing that we are not alone, a seed put there by the Spirit of God.
The scene suddenly switches: we are at a feast in the presence of our enemies. Normally that would be quite awkward, if not downright scary. Maybe you have known a family Christmas dinner or a birthday celebration like that, where the conversation always ends up in the same place. But this feast, the one prepared by the good shepherd who is now both head waiter and chef, is not confrontational. Rather we experience through him an overflowing welcome at the table that has been set for us. As we survey the things that previously intimidated us we can now see the possibilities of renewal.
In the conclusion to the psalm, the shepherd has changed his position is relation to us. He is no longer in front leading. Now he is following us. Maybe there’s a gentle push when we need it, a whisper into the secret place in our heart to step out with new courage and resolve where we feel afraid. I wonder if you have ever known that kind of inner suggestion to move ahead.
And finally the writer concludes: God’s gifts of goodness and love will go on satisfying us, all the way to the house of the Lord, where his intimacy that we have already learned to recognise and love, will be known for ever.
What enables you to go forward in the midst of difficulties?
How do we let God offer us new life and energy? What for you are the green pastures and quiet waters?