Written by David Lamb
Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:00
I have a confession. When someone quotes an overly familiar biblical passage, I groan, “Not again.”
Last winter I posted three blogs about the overuse of Jeremiah 29:11 (see http://davidtlamb.com/category/old-testament/jeremiah/). A few weeks ago I pleaded with my class to not use Num 6:24-26 (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”) every time they need a benediction.
I love the Bible, but I just wish people didn’t always use the same, limited number of overly familiar texts. The psalm that gives Jeremiah 29 a run for its money in the overuse category would have to be Psalm 23. Many of us have it memorized.
I have another confession. Over the past few months as I have felt miserable with stomach reflux, voice problems and anxiety, I have “overused” Psalm 23. Why? Because God has been speaking to me through the psalm. I needed a shepherd. So only read the rest of this blog if you need a shepherd.
If you’re interested, here are my two previous Psalm posts for Biblical’s faculty blog:
The Rewards and Consequences of a Torah-Focused Life (Psalm 1)
God Likes It When We Complain (Psalm 13)
Psalm 23:1 A Psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will 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 anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
The image of a shepherd should be familiar to Israel. Many biblical leaders were shepherds: Abraham (Gen. 12:16), Moses (Exo. 3:1), David (1 Sam. 16:11; 2 Sam. 7:8), Amos (7:14), and most significantly, Jesus (John 10:11). In Ezekiel 34, God condemns Israel’s shepherd-leaders, and declares that he will shepherd his flock, Israel. Scripture describes God’s intimate care for his people in language they can understand, with imagery from the familiar occupation of a shepherd. As we communicate to people about God and his mission, we need to use language they understand and that engages with them and their specific context.
With God as his shepherd, the psalmist/sheep doesn’t want. Notice, the shepherd doesn’t actually give the food or the drink but simply leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters where he can feed and drink for himself. Sheep need a lot of direction: “Eat here. Drink here.” I’m sheep-like, not simply because of my last name, but because I need help knowing how to care for myself. I suspect I’m not unique in this regard. Take God’s command to rest (“lie down”- v. 2) for example, that’s a tough one to obey, although it shouldn’t be because we all know we need rest. People involved in God’s mission often felt like they are too important to rest.
A dramatic shift occurs in verse 4. In the first three verses, God is spoken about in 3rdperson language (he, his), but in 4 the text switches to 2ndperson (you, your). Why? While sheep need to be fed and watered (1-3) God is spoken about, but as sheep walk through Death-Shadow Valley, God is spoken to: “You are with me.” As we go through the most difficult times sheep like us need to know God is present. The promise of God’s presence is the essence of the incarnation, God-with-us. That’s good news, particularly for people in pain.
In my next post, I’ll look at the rest of Psalm 23.
Since most of us aren’t shepherds, how can we use imagery from common, contemporary occupations to communicate biblical truths today?
David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.