Saturday, July 17, 2021

Pentecost 8B

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
3He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For his name's sake.

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


The Psalter is the hymnal of the synagogue; some psalms even indicate specific instruments to play for accompaniment! The Psalter was the hymnal of John Calvin's Geneva Reform, and American Puritans sung only psalms during worship. Even now when hymnals of virtually all church and theological traditions include songs as diverse as plainsong, German chorales. ethnic folk tunes, classics from people like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, twentieth-twenty-first century compositions, (etc.), some of those are either musical settings of psalms or psalm paraphrases.

Hebrew scripture roughly divides into three categories: Torah, or Pentateuch (five books of Moses); Prophets; Writings. The Psalter is part of the writings.

The Revised Common Lectionary includes a psalm for each Sunday. Technically the psalm is a response to the first lesson or reading, and not a standalone lection. The sung or spoken psalmody often reflects concepts or vocabulary from the first reading.

Psalm 23 and Shepherds

In the ecumenical 3-year long Revised Common Lectionary many churches follow, the fourth Sunday of Easter always is Good Shepherd Sunday, and the RCL appoints Psalm 23 several other times in the three year cycle. Including today! There are many MANY musical settings of Psalm 23 that include hymns, choral anthems, and hymns arranged for choir. I no longer blog YouTube links because so many are here today, gone tomorrow, but my own favorites include Virgil Thomson's "My Shepherd Will Supply my Need" to the Southern Harmony tune Resignation, along with Marty Haugen's more recent, "Shepherd Me, O God."

In the Ancient Near East, shepherd was a common image for a monarch or a god. In the bible we've met Moses and David as shepherds; in last Sunday's reading, the prophet Amos was a shepherd. Jesus declares himself the Good Shepherd. In Luke's gospel, shepherds (abiding in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night) first heard the good news of the birth of a Savior. Similar to many employment categories today, shepherds could belong to what we'd call a social underclass (as the Bethlehem sheep herders probably were), or they could have been part of a relatively affluent elite, as many scholars believe Amos, the prophet we studied last Sunday, may have been.

Psalm 23 – Word Pictures

Psalm 23 has a calm and restful reputation, but listen to the verbs, and you'll know it's full of action. Psalm 23 is familiar funeral scripture, but don't get sentimental! This ain't sweet repose, but assurance for rough tough times when valleys are deep, prospects bleak. Do we need hope for the post-COVID journey? With recent infection surges and new variants emerging, we may need more hope now than we would have imagined only three or four months ago.

Verses 1–3 talk about God; verses 4 and 5 are addressed God. Verse 6? Outcomes of God's actions, but "goodness and mercy will follow me" is much too tame; the Hebrew says goodness and mercy will pursue me, chase me down non-stop. "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" is part of what makes Psalm 23 popular at funerals and memorial services, but again the Hebrew conveys a slightly different perspective with "I shall return into the house of the Lord for length of days." This return isn't finally reaching a settled place as much as it is going home again. And again. It's not only Southern novelists who obsess about homecoming—we all yearn for and need places and people that know our name, where we can feast on favorites, where we can rest a while before we continue the journey.

After a year and a half and counting of COVID-19, let's take to heart Psalm 23's promises of God's presence and provision.

Write Your Own Psalm

Psalm 23's images and icons easily would have resonated with its original readers and singers. USA and Canada no longer are mostly rural; most readers of this blog probably grew up and currently reside in either a city or a suburb, but even if you haven't spent much time tilling soil, you've seen pictures and you know the planting – growing – harvesting cycle.

What words and visuals would you use in your own poetry to describe God's constant presence and provision? How would you paraphrase Psalm 23?

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