Psalms For Life
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Psalm 23

Shepherd song

The world says we’re masters of our own fate, fully responsible to create the kind of life that satisfies us. David knows that doesn’t work: we find contentment only in the care of our loving Shepherd-king.

A David psalm.

1 With YHWH as my shepherd
I have everything I need.
2 He lets me rest in lush, green fields
and leads me beside peaceful pools.
3 Good shepherd that he is
he brings me back from the wrong path
and leads me always on the right path.
4 Even walking
through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil for you are with me:
your rod defending
your staff directing
you reassure me.

5 You spread a lavish feast for me
in full view of my enemies
massage my head with fragrant oil
and pour my cup brimful of blessings.

6 Your goodness and mercy chase me down
every day of my life
and YHWH’s house will be my home
for days and years without end.


Kings in the ancient world pictured themselves as roughneck-shepherds, ready to kill anything threatening their flock. David uses the image to picture YHWH in whose care we experience the good life. That life isn’t about learning to make do so much as about being centered in God, seeing his goodness in every situation—that he’s here for us now. Freedom, abundance, and peace are all internal conditions depending on nothing but our Shepherd-king’s unswerving commitment. Without that, no amount of anything satisfies.

Since sheep are easily spooked by fast moving water, our shepherd leads us to quiet waters. Most English translations render the next line, “he restores my soul,” but the Hebrew (shuv) can also be translated “he brings me back,” which is how the Septuagint, Syriac Peshitta, ancient Armenian, and most Arabic translations render it. Bleating loudly and trembling violently, a lost sheep is easy prey. But when we go astray, our shepherd lovingly brings us back to the right path.

In verse 4, we traverse the “valley of the shadow of death” or “darkest valley,” either translation being possible. David has in mind isolated badland gorges where death lurks in the shadows. God doesn’t offer us a trouble-free existence, but truly letting him be God can yield a worry-free life, even facing danger.[1] God guides and protects with fierce gentleness, freeing us to live joyfully, fully alive, despite life’s brokenness and pain.

YHWH publicly honors David as his guest when the enemies so prominent in the preceding psalms surround him. Saul once welcomed David into his household, only later to let envy sabotage their friendship. Like David, we need never fear being disenfranchised by God. His goodness and grace pursue us relentlessly. They, not our circumstances or false sense of control, are the basis of true peace. And they’ll remain long after life’s brokenness and pain are gone. Our true home.

I choose to be where you have me now, Good Shepherd, content to be me. Not harried or chafing that I’m not somewhere, something, or somehow else. Not weighed down by my past or needing my future to validate my present. Calm in your commitment to me. Overflowing with thanks. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Your goodness and mercy chase me down
every day of my life
and YHWH’s house will be my home
for days and years without end.

 

[1] The psalm’s chiasm highlights YHWH’s protection from evil: A: no lack in YHWH’s care (v. 1), B: physical provisions (food, drink, rest; v. 2), C: security (v. 3), D: NO FEAR OF EVIL (v. 4a), C: security (v. 4b), B: physical provisions (food, drink, rest; v. 5), A: no lack (ever!) in YHWH’s care (v. 6).

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.