bible blog 1825

I have recently completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.

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PSALM 23

The Lord shepherds me;

I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down

In meadows of young grass;

He brings me

To the quiet waters;

He refreshes my life.

He guides me

On straight paths

As his good name requires.

Yes, even though I walk

In the glen of death’s shadow

I will fear no evil;

For you are with me

Your crook and your staff

Keep me calm.

You set a table for me

In the sight of my enemies;

You moisten my head with oil

My cup overflows with wine.

Goodness and loving kindness

will surely track me

All the days of my life;

And I will abide

In the house of the Lord

forever.

(Translated emmock 2015)

Commentary on this famous psalm is almost superfluous; it is so interwoven with the tradition of scripture, especially in the gospel of John, but not only there, and with the fabric of our liturgies and personal  devotion. The Scottish reformed  tradition used the psalms in metrical versions over centuries so that the quiet waters and death’s dark vale are part of our spiritual landscape. For Christian readers the shepherding Lord has become Jesus.

Just for that reason it’s good to emphasise the Jewishness of the psalm.

The shepherd in the Hebrew bible is always already a figure of importance, already he is Abraham, Isaac Jacob, Moses and David, that is, he is actual shepherd, Bedouin sheikh and King of Israel. It is natural enough therefore to apply this noble function to God. I was reminded when translating the psalm that in the Hebrew, “shepherd” (ro’i) is a verbal form, indicating action as well as status. It speaks of the experience of being guided, which is then spelt out briefly in the first few verses. The shepherd’s skill and kindness offer the flock good pasture in young juicy grass and life-giving water from the desert oases.shepherd

The sheep recognises that it does not discover this good living for itself; the shepherd’s wisdom has mapped out the essential places of nourishment throughout the land. Indeed the shepherd’s professional reputation (his “name”) depends on his ability to guide the flock in the straight paths that lead from one source of life to the next. Some translate “paths of righteousness or justice” but that is to break the metaphor which I think continues through the psalm. The source of guidance is of course the Torah.

The “glen of death’s shadow” is well-known in Scotland where a number of mountain defiles could carry this name. Doubtless the Judean highlands, albeit very much drier, also provide many examples. The “evil” however is from animals and human beings using the dangerous terrain to prey on flocks and people alike. The sheep may be spooked by the overshadowing mountains and their denizens, people by the fear of predatory thugs. The sheep recognise the presence of the shepherd with his signs of care and authority, the people of faith by implication, can trust in the God who travels with them, even through danger and suffering, even indeed into exile. This “for you are with me” is a precious and hard-earned utterance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which has been intensified by faith in the crucified Jesus. In the utmost desolation, when we ask “My God why have you abandoned me?” we can still say, “For you are with me” and find calm.

The shepherd who guides the sheep is also the sheikh, who, like Abraham, welcomes strangers to his encampment and provides hospitality. This development of the metaphor allows the psalm to pick up the issue of enemies more explicitly than in the previous verses. This stranger is being tracked by enemies, who are humiliated by having to watch the powerful sheikh honouring their quarry with a meal, including the signs of desert welcome, the olive oil to moisten the parched skin and the wine to gladden the heart. This scene is an image of the welcome enjoyed by those who “take refuge” in God, who do not use violence but rely on God’s justice. They are part of God’s household, which like the “tent of the presence” travels with the people.

That is why the psalmist can say that instead of being tracked by wrongdoers, he is tracked by the goodness and loving-kindness of God. At all times and in all places, he can be in God’s house.

The psalmist has used the metaphor of the shepherd to re- imagine the relationship between the shepherding God and his/her people in a classic form which generates other related imaginations throughout the history of faith. If a government asks, as ours has, primary school teachers to refresh their role as pastoral carers, this ancient psalm can provide a good starting point. Or I can, as a minister, say to a man facing treatment for aggressive cancer, “Keep saying, ‘For You are with me.'”

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