Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).

 

April 3 (2): John 10:1-18

John 10:1-18ff

Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is one of the most beloved themes from the Gospels—however, the popular image of Jesus carrying the sheep really stems from the parable in Luke 15:3-7 (parallel in Matthew 18:12-14), of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to rescue the one “lost” sheep that had strayed: a beautiful image of care and concern for the sinner, the poor, the outcast. The parable in John (10:1-5, expounded in verses 7-18, 27-29) is rather different: the “good” (literally, “beautiful”, kalo/$) shepherd is one who guides and protects the entire flock (or herd, poi/mnh). Actually, Jesus describes himself as both the shepherd and the sheepgate (“door”, qu/ra) in the parable. This seems to have caused some confusion for early scribes: Ë75, along with Coptic (Sahidic, Akhmimc, Fayyumic) versions, read “shepherd” (o( poimh/n) instead of “door” (h( qu/ra) in verse 7. The “Good Shepherd” passage can be broken down as follows:

    1. The parable, 10:1-6
    2. Jesus as the door (gate) to the sheepfold, 10:7-10
    3. Jesus as the shepherd, 10:11-13
    4. The unity and preservation of the flock, 10:14-18
    5. A reprise of the shepherd theme, 10:25-30

Here I will look briefly at aspects of the last two sections, which are closely related and serve as a climactic revelatory moment for the parable (and exposition) of vv. 1-13. I find several primary themes, all of which are, in various ways, developed in subsequent chapters of the Gospel:

A. Mutual knowledge between Shepherd and Flock

In verse 14, right after the key declaration that he is (“I am”, e)gw/ ei)mi) the “beautiful shepherd” (o( poimh\n o( kalo/$), Jesus states that ginw/skw ta\ e)ma\ kai\ ginw/skousi/ me ta\ e)ma\, “I know the (things/ones that are) mine and the (thing/ones that are) mine know me”. The motif of knowing and knowledge (gnw=si$) is prominent throughout the Gospel of John (see especially the great discourses in chapters 8, 13, 14, and 17). Clearly this is not simply a matter of intellectual or factual knowledge, but of an intuitive recognition or “trust” (pi/sti$) (based on one’s true identity as a believer)—see Jesus’ response to the people questioning him in verse 26: u(mei=$ ou) pisteu/ete, o%ti ou)k e)ste\ e)k tw=n proba/twn tw=n e)mw=n, “you do not trust [i.e. believe], because you are not out of [i.e. from or belonging to] my sheep”. There something of a “gnostic” quality to this: it not so much a matter of conversion or learning something new, but of recognition, of realizing who (and whose) you (already) are. It would be precarious to read a full-fledged Augustinian-Reformed doctrine of predestination into passages such as this, but the basic concept is, I think, appropriate. Certainly the shepherd’s knowledge of the sheep is mentioned first, and takes priority. While the structure of the motif in verse 14 stresses mutual knowledge, it is not out of place to consider that our knowledge of Christ is based on his (pre-existing) knowledge of us (see John 15:16; 1 John 4:19, etc). This recognition of the shepherd leads to the sheep following him (not the other way around).

B. The Voice of the Shepherd

What the sheep follow is the voice of the shepherd (verse 16, 27; see also in the parable v. 3-5). The parallel motif of voice/hearing also occurs throughout the Gospel. The voice (fwnh/), of course is the audible expression of speech (i.e., lo/go$ “word, saying, account”)—Christ as the lo/go$ also gives account or “speaks” (le/gw). It is important to examine: (1) the source and nature of the voice in the Gospel, and (2) how the voice manifests itself in the context of the Gospel.

(1) First, the “word” (lo/go$) was (h@n) in the beginning (e)n a)rxh=|) with [lit. toward, pro$] God, and was God (qeo$) (John 1:1ff). Second, throughout the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes over and over that he (the Son) only does what he hears (John 5:30; 12:49-50; also 16:13 [of the Spirit], etc) and sees (5:19-20, etc) the Father saying and doing (the [incarnate] inter-relationship between Father and Son). And third, throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ words (voice) is identified with the voice of God—i.e., they speak with a common voice. This is especially so in relation to the idea of resurrection (5:19-29), where it is stated that all who are in the tombs “will hear his voice” (a)kou/sousin th=$ fwnh=$ au)tou=) and “will travel [i.e. come] out” (e)kporeu/sontai) (v. 28-29, cf. also v. 25 “the ones hearing [his voice] will live”).

(2) The message of 5:25, 28-29 will be acted out dramatically in the scene of the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44, esp. v. 43). Soon after, when Jesus is in Jerusalem, in response to his prayer (Pa/ter, do/caso/n sou to\ o&noma, “Father, glorify your name”, 12:28), there was “a voice out of heaven” (fwnh/ e)k tou= ou)ranou=) like “thunder” (bronth/)—a clear echo of the Theophany on Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:19; 20:18: in Ancient Near Eastern thinking thunder was generally understood as the “voice” of God). If, in these two scenes there is a visible, audible manifestation of the power of the Divine Voice, in chapters 13-17 the Voice is manifest at the spiritual level in Jesus’ discourses (presented as his parting words) to his disciples. Indeed, the coming Spirit (16:13-15) will, like Jesus himself [as his abiding presence in believers], speak whatever he hears (from the Father), and will glorify Christ (just like the Divine Voice of 12:28), receiving (lh/yetai) what is out of [i.e. from, belonging to] the Son, and will “declare” (a)paggelei= lit. “give [forth] a message”) it to the believer.  In the passion and resurrection narratives too there is a subtle dramatization of Jesus’ voice; note especially the words to Pilate: “into this [i.e. for this] I have come into the world, that I should witness [to] the truth; every one that is out of [e)k, “of, from, belonging to”] the truth hears my voice [a)kou/ei mou th=$ fwnh=$] (18:37). Note again that it is not hearing the voice that leads one to the truth, but one hears the voice because he/she already belongs to the truth. Interestingly, the crowd could not understand the Divine Voice (12:28-29).

C. The Authority of the Shepherd

The inter-relation and mutual identity of Father and Son has already been mentioned (cf. 10:15, “as the Father knows me and I know the Father”). But what is also specified in the Good Shepherd passage is the “authority” (e)cousi/a) Christ has (v. 18), specifically the authority to “set (down)” (aorist infinitive of ti/qhmi) and to “take/receive” (aor. inf. of lamba/nw) again his soul (or “life”, yuxh/). The word e)cousi/a (from e&cestin/e&ceimi) defies a strict literal translation in English, but it would be something like “from being” in the sense of something which “can be (done)”—i.e., power, ability, but also that which is permitted, lawful, etc. By extension, e)cousi/a often refers to the power or ability (to do something) granted by another (i..e, by one more powerful, king, ruler, etc). In this regard, orthodox believers are a bit uncomfortable speaking of authority being “given” to Christ by one “more powerful” (the Father); and, while it is not necessary to read a strict subordinationism here, Jesus specifically states that the authority (with the task of setting down and taking up his life) is a “commandment” or “charge” place on him (e)ntolh/) which he received from the Father (10:18). This charge is, literally, for the completion (te/lo$) of a mission, and to fulfill God’s purpose—for the suffering and death (the setting [down]) and resurrection and glorification (the taking [up] again) which was soon to come. This image of the shepherd who th\n yuxh\n au)tou= ti/qhsin u(pe\r tw=n proba/twn (“sets [down] his soul over [i.e. on behalf of] the sheep”) (10:11) is most beautiful indeed. One must also point out that the authority is not, in fact, merely “subordinate”, but equal to the Father—consider the powerful statement in verse 28: “and I give them life (of the) Age [i.e. eternal life], and no they shall not perish [or, be destroyed] into the Age, and someone shall not [i.e. no one shall] snatch them out of my hand!” This authority (indeed the sheep themselves, the believers) was given by the Father and no one “has power to snatch (them) out of the Father’s hand” (v. 29), and the statement culminates with Jesus’ famous declaration: e)gw\ kai\ o( path\r e%n e)smen (“I and the Father are one”, v. 30).

D. The Unity of the Flock

Perhaps most extraordinary in this passage is the effect both of the shepherd’s voice and of his laying down his life: that there will come to be (genh/sonta) “a single herd [i.e. flock], (and) one herdsman [i.e. shepherd]” (mi/a poi/mnh ei($ poi/mhn). This last phrase is quite remarkable; it is necessary to examine each part separately and then both combined:

(1) mi/a poi/mnh (“one herd” or “one flock”). This has two aspects: (a) the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers, clearly indicated by the “other sheep” (a&lla pro/bata) who will “hear his voice” (10:1, notice also in this context the Greeks who approach Jesus in chapter 12).  More importantly, (b) the unity of all believers, a message subtly present throughout the entire Gospel, but which will find sublime expression in the “prayer” of chapter 17.

(2) ei($ poi/mhn (“one shepherd”). In his exposition of the parable, Jesus speaks of the “thief” who tries to sneak in and steal (or kill) the sheep (v. 8, 10), and the mere hireling who does not protect the sheep (v. 12-13)—both are false shepherd (“strangers”) whom sheep will not truly follow (v. 5). There is only one shepherd the sheep follow (v. 4, 14, 16, 27), and only one who lays his life down for the flock.

(3) mi/a poi/mnh ei($ poi/mhn (“one [sheep-]herd, one shepherd”). This means more than simply a combination of the two statements; rather the combined statement itself represents something quite new (and deeper). The key, I think, is the parallel declaration in v. 14-15, which I arrange chiastically:

  • e)gw/ ei)mi o( poimh\n o( kalo/$ (“I am the beautiful shepherd”)
    • kai\ ginw/skw ta\ e)ma\ kai\ ginw/skousi/ me ta\ e)ma/ (“and I know the [ones that are] mine, and the [ones that are] mine know me”)
    • kaqw\$ ginw/skei me o( path\r ka)gw\ ginw/skw to\n pate/ra (“even as the Father knows me and I know the Father”)
  • kai\ th\n yuxh/n mou ti/qhmi u(pe\r tw=n proba/twn (“and I set [down] my soul over [i.e. on behalf of] the sheep”)

The inner phrases express the great two-fold theme of unity, declared more completely in Jesus’ words to the Father in chapter 17:

i%na w@sin e^n kaqw\$ h(mei=$
“they they might be one even as we [are] (v. 11)”

i%na pa/nte$ e^n w@sin, kaqw\$ su/, pa/ter, e)n e)moi\ ka)gw\ e)n soi/, i%na kai\ au)toi\ e)n h(mi=n w@sin
“that all might be one, even as you, Father, [are] in me and I in you, that also they might be in us (v. 21)”

ka)gw\ th\n do/can h^n de/dwka/$ moi de/dwka au)toi=$, i%na w@sin e^n kaqw\$ h(mei=$ e%n
“and I have given the glory, which you have given to me, to them, that they might be one even as we [are] one (v. 22)”

i%na h( a)ga/ph h^n h)ga/phsa/$ me e)n au)toi=$ h@| ka)gw\ e)n au)toi=$
“…that the love [with] which you loved me might be in them, and I in them (v. 26b)”

Jesus as the Good Shepherd was a popular theme in early Christian art, including a number of depictions in the 2nd/3rd-century catacombs (underground burial sites in and around Rome)—making them some of the very earliest Christian works of art to survive. The pastoral imagery—well-known from mythology and the bucolic poetry of Theocritus, Virgil, et al.—was especially suited for an idyllic representation of the afterlife in Greco-Roman culture. But for Christians, there was probably an inherent religious message as well. The Good Shepherd discourse in John precedes the raising of Lazarus from the dead; and, surely the image of the shepherd protecting and preserving his sheep offered considerable comfort to those facing death. One might also have had in mind the words of John 10:28: “and I give them eternal life [life of the Age], and no they shall not perish unto the Age, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand!”