Psalm 23 conveys more than faith and trust

The essay below was originally written for my honors theology course: Juda and Christ–Christian and Jewish Dialogue. Seeing as the Responsorial Psalm for today is Psalm 23, I thought it would be fitting to republish this essay…Enjoy 🙂

            Although Psalm 23 only contains six versus, its meaning is powerful and applies to both Judaism and Christianity in more ways than one. Although this psalm clearly reflects an extreme sense of faith (Rice), it best exemplifies the relationship between God and Israel, his people. Furthermore, the descriptions within this psalm force readers to look at the poverty a Godless individual experiences (Rice). Above all, this psalm is a song to God, and although some scholars argue that it is a direct conversation from David to God, from an individual to God, it is so much more than that. Although David speaks in first person, he could easily convey the emotions of the entire nation of God—Israel—through his song.

            “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack” (Ps 23:1). This first reference of God shows not only imagery of Exodus but also the direct relationship He has with His people. To Christians, Jesus was seen as the good shepherd, but the meaning of Messiah is very different for Jews. In the case of Psalm 23, as Jews see David as the ancestor of the coming Messiah, they acknowledge that the Messiah too will be a sheep led by God. Furthermore, through the imagery of God, the shepherd shows that God has selfless devotion (Rice). He continues to lead the people of Israel even if they stray from the path, as sheep often do (1). In terms of suffering, sheep are prone to injuring themselves so it makes one believe, regardless of religious beliefs, that suffering is often self-afflicted. And yet, God continues to be there for us to grow stronger as he does in the third verse. Finally, in relation to a Godless individual, the imagery fits yet again, for Israel without God is like sheep without a Shepherd, not only lost but unprotected as well.

The imagery of Exodus shows up in the second verse as well. “In green pastures you let me graze; to safe water you lead me” (Ps 23:2). Again, the song alludes to the shepherd leading his flock. In terms of Exodus, however, this imagery shows that God led Moses and his people from the deserts of Egypt to the fruitful pastures of Israel, their Promised Land. In terms of the role of the Messiah, according to Judaism, his goal is to lead the people of Israel back to the Land of Israel, uniting his people. Even so, this verse means so much more. It shows that God, our shepherd, allows us to cultivate. Again, the image of God is portrayed in a benevolent light. He keeps us safe and protects us from suffering. This verse also hints at the Christian concept of the Afterlife in Heaven where all of God’s people are safe and free from suffering.

“You restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name” (Ps 23:3). Verse 3 has strong ties with both Christian and Jewish concepts of suffering. Like in the poem telling of the footprints in the sand who carry us during times of trouble, this verse reminds us that God is with us through even the worst of times and he always gives us strength to persevere. For Jews, this is a direct correlation with the countless experiences of suffering they experienced through their history (Thorpe). It reminds Jews that David knew suffering just as it reminds Christians that Jesus knew suffering. For Christians, this verse reminds them that suffering can be redemptive. Christians must experience suffering and even temptation, because they must be strong enough to stay on the right path to reach Heaven and everlasting life.

Verse 4 returns us to the imagery of Exodus. “Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage” (Ps 23:4). Again, we see the imagery of Moses, who used his staff to help him guide his people away from Egypt. The “dark valley” could mean suffering or perhaps death. In terms of suffering, it reminds both Jews and Christians that God is here for us in times of trouble and will stay with us through everything, because he is the selfless shepherd. Psalm 23 is a song of trust and comfort (Thorpe). For Jews, this means that even though they must suffer, with the help of His Messiah, God will eventually reunite and lead his people to the Promised Land. For Christians, this verse is another reference to death and the Afterlife. Christians are taught not to fear death, for it is not a punishment. It is merely another eschaton (Thorpe). The end of this life leads to the beginning of a new existence in Heaven.

“You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Ps 23:5). There are many references to the relationship with God in this verse. The imagery of the cup has multiple meanings. For Christians, it could suggest that the cup is the Blood of the Messiah. Jesus’ love for his people is overflowing. For Jews and Christians, the reference to the cup could have another meaning as well—it serves as a symbol for our love of God. Our love should be overflowing and unending. The imagery of the anointing expresses acceptance (Rice). The God painted in this song is benevolent and always forgiving. He is not wrathful or spiteful, but forever loving and kind. The imagery of the table set before the psalmist could serve as another reference to the afterlife of Christians. God opens the doors of Heaven to His people, allowing all to see His love, regardless of their own opinions of His people or even Himself.

The final verse of Psalm 23 again reminds Israel that she is always surrounded by God’s loving embrace. “Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come” (Ps 23:6). The house of God is the Promised Land of Israel for the Jews and Heaven for Christians. Especially for Christians, this verse reminds them that suffering is redemptive, because goodness and love follow. For Jews and for Christians, this verse reminds that God is good and loving and is always with us, whether we want Him or not (1). Like a shepherd with his flock, God would never abandon His flock. Through God, all of our needs are guaranteed to be fulfilled (Thorpe). As He continues to watch over Israel, God acknowledges that we need Him and He answers our prayers.

Psalm 23 is a love story of God and Israel. Although told through an individual, David, this song is the song of all of Israel—God’s people. This is a song that reminds all of God’s creation that He is ever present in our lives. In times of strife and in times of joy, God never leaves our side. He is the shepherd to His flock and loves us selflessly. For Jews, Pslam 23 reminds them that God will deliver them once again to the Promised Land through his Messiah, a descendent of David. For Christians, God assures them that they have a place in his holy kingdom of Heaven because His Messiah, His son, Jesus experienced suffering to redeem all of Israel. Above all, Psalm 23 reminds God’s followers that they can trust and find comfort in His embrace. Psalm 23 is a song of salvation.

 

Works Cited

Rice, Gene. “An exposition of Psalm 23.” Journal of Religious Thought 52:1 (1995): 71. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 10 May 2011.

Thorpe, Jacqulyn Brown. “Psalm 23: A Remix.” Journal of Religious Thought 59/60 ½, 1 (2006). 165-179. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 10 May 2011.

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